Can’t we just use other words for the reportedly forbidden words at the CDC? Director: Words not banned.

Estimated read time: 3 minutes

An update via Twitter from the CDC Director saying there are no banned words:

The below was written on 12/15/2017:

Two days in a row with politics-related posts. Net neutrality yesterday and today the Washington Post reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been told not to use certain words. Really?

The increase in politics-related stories might have something to do with me being between jobs ??‍♂️as I probably spent a larger amount of time than usual on consuming news and political news.

Back to the forbidden words announcement at the CDC…

According to the Post:

The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

Shortly after the article made its way around the social networks plain language expert Cheryl Stephens tweeted that we should just come up with some plain language versions.


First off, why ban words anyway – especially if they are the best ones to describe something? And is that even effective?

To me it seems similar to a rule that some companies put in place when social media first came around: some companies restricted how MySpace could be used by employees and then of course MySpace became largely irrelevant and Facebook took off. So now MySpace policies didn’t apply to Facebook because they were too specific.

And maybe it’s not about the words anyways. So don’t look for specific words but look for what is the best way to describe the situation.

For example, I’ve had teams in the past that worked really hard to eliminate medical jargon and buzzwords in their stories. State-of-the-art is a very common phrase in healthcare. So is multi-disciplinary. These teams worked hard to never use those terms even when medical professionals wanted to use them. Guess what, they found much better ways to describe-a.k.a. show and not tell-what they wanted to get across to the reader.

And sometimes thinking about words in a vacuum isn’t the best way to tell a story or pick the right word. Let me give you an example. I grew up in Germany and I am fluent in German and English. My 10-year-old daughter and I visited Germany in 2017. She doesn’t speak any German but my family living in Germany does.

My daughter asked “what’s the German word for ‘good’?”


She looked at me and explained that didn’t sound right.

Huh? You don’t even speak German. LOL.

And that is the literal translation but it was out of context-because the context wasn’t even shared with me. So what she was really trying to figure out the German word was that my mom was using when she was eating a really good dinner.

Here’s a picture of the two, if you care:

See, she didn’t give me any context and while good worked in this scenario what my mom was actually saying was:

“Das ist so lecker.” The translation to English for that would be: this is so delicious or tasty.

Of course, good works too for understanding purposes but within the context the actual translation would be a different word.

In fact, before I looked it up just now in the Google translation app which said the literal translation is delicious, I translated the German word to tasty in English.

Of course there are many other words that would also do the trick including yummy and also good.

Let’s think about that as we are moving through this new world of communications, directives and daily news. Certainly, I wouldn’t blame scientists to push back on the ban of a handful of words, let’s also think about a way to tell the stories information that we want to share in a way that makes them the clearest. Maybe it is those words or maybe there can be others.

In general though, in a free speech society every time I hear the banning of communications tools – which is what words are-there’s usually more negative than positive for the consumer of that content.