I've been thinking about inclusive language and welcoming environments this week. It started in a non-technical space, when a friend told me that the term midget is a derogatory slur. When he first told me, I didn't believe him and had to look it up. As a person of short stature myself, friends had affectionately called me a midget since elementary school, and up until last week, I'd had no idea that it was considered offensive. I unfortunately have several online handles based on the term, and now that I know, I've been trying to figure out how to rename/deprecate them painlessly. I've also been trying to internalize the negative connotation associated with the word so that I don't carelessly fling it around in public.

The conversation reminded me of the summer of 2020, when the death of George Floyd led to huge protests across the United States, and even tech companies took action. GitHub renamed the default branch name for new repositories from master to main. Younger companies – Twitter, LinkedIn, Ansible – made similar changes to their source code, and even older companies – MySQL – followed suit to remove offensive terminology. Today, the W3C keeps a list of terms to avoid and suggests appropriate substitutes:

But how did these terms come into use in the first place? My curiosity piqued, and I did some research on their histories. In particular, terms used both inside and outside of the tech world caught my attention, like blacklist:

The OED notes that the first known use of the term appears to be in The true peace-maker: laid forth in a sermon before his Majesty at Theobalds written by the Bishop of Norwich, Joseph Hall, in 1624:

"Ye secret oppressors,..ye kind drunkards, and who euer come within this blacke list of wickednesse."

The word black when used in this context refers to negative connotations, and is attested as such way before 1624. The term blackball, which is first attested in 1550, describes the act of placing a black ball into a container as a means of recording a negative vote (and vice-versa using a white ball to record a positive vote).

Even though the term was thus attested and know well before the 20th century, popular usage was nevertheless strictly limited. Use of the term blacklist first gained credence and popularity in the United States not by way of McCarthy, but rather from British blockade efforts during World War I. Over the course of 1915 and 1916 British government agencies gradually developed an implemented a system whereby neutral firms and individuals suspected of trading with or otherwise aiding the Central Powers would be denied access to Entente infrastructure such as ship bunker, financial services and communications. Cargoes or merchant vessels belonging to such firms or individuals could also be confiscated by Entente naval patrols if encountered in transit to Europe.

British government agencies and departments maintained several such lists, but only one of these were public. Officially called the Statutory List, but much more commonly known simply as the British blacklist, it became a prominent focus of hatred, not only among those American firms actually listed, but also by many members of the American media and general public which resented what was seen as illegal British interference with neutral trade. This resentment ran so deep that when the United States adopted similar trade control measures after joining the war in April 1917, the US government was careful never to officially endorse the British list, as well as avoiding referring to their own efforts by the same name.

edit: A quick Google Ngram search illustrates the trend nicely. Use of the term blacklist is extant before the Great War, but experiences a massive surge in popularity during the conflict itself. The subsequent upswing during the Second World War represents wide usage during that conflict to describe all manners of restrictions and proscriptions, many of which built on the experiences from the previous war.

The term whitelist is of much more recent origin, first being attested in 1842, and is then explicitly used to refer to the opposite of a blacklist (i.e. a list of approved or favored items).

Pretty wicked history, isn't it? I wonder how the connotation of terms like "little black book" or "little black dress" will be affected. And in the back of my mind, I keep thinking about how programmers often joke that naming things is the most difficult part of their jobs. Diffcult indeed.