Government workers in the city of Seattle have been advised that the terms "citizen" and "brown bag" are potentially offensive and may no longer be used in official documents and discussions.
KOMO-TV reports that the city's Office of Civil Rights instructed city workers in a recent internal memo to avoid using the words because some may find them offensive.
"Luckily, we've got options."
- Elliott Bronstein, Seattle's Office for Civil Rights
"Luckily, we've got options," Elliott Bronstein of the Office for Civil Rights wrote in the memo obtained by the station. "For 'citizens,' how about 'residents?'"
In an interview with Seattle's KIRO Radio, Bronstein said the term "brown bag" has been used historically as a way to judge skin color.
"For a lot of particularly African-American community members, the phrase brown bag does bring up associations with the past when a brown bag was actually used, I understand, to determine if people's skin color was light enough to allow admission to an event or to come into a party that was being held in a private home," Bronstein said.
According to the memo, city employees should use the terms "lunch-and-learn" or "sack lunch" instead of "brown bag."
Bronstein told KIRO Radio the word "citizen" should be avoided because many people who live in Seattle are residents, not citizens.
"They are legal residents of the United States and they are residents of Seattle. They pay taxes and if we use a term like citizens in common use, then it doesn't include a lot of folks," Bronstein said.
Seattle, however, isn't the only city with an eye on potentially disruptive words.
The New York Post reported in March 2012 that the city’s Department of Education avoids references to words like “dinosaurs,” “birthdays,” “Halloween” and dozens of other topics on city-issued tests because they could evoke “unpleasant emotions” among the students.
Dinosaurs, for example, conjures the topic of evolution, which could rile fundamentalists and birthdays are not celebrated by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Halloween, meanwhile, suggests an affiliation to Paganism.
Officials said such exclusions are normal procedure, insisting it’s not censorship.
“This is standard language that has been used by test publishers for many years and allows our students to complete practice exams without distraction,” a Department of Education spokeswoman told the newspaper last year.