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Considering Culture-bound Terminology
2009, Q3 (September 29, 2009)
By Sue Kocher, Carolina Chapter Senior Member

Sue Kocher
Sue Kocher

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the September 8, 2009, edition of words@sas, a series of articles about Terminology Management issues, published on the internal web site of SAS Institute Inc.

Politically incorrect, or just unclear?

An interesting question came across my desk today: Is it OK to use the terms “blacklist” and “whitelist,” or might they cause offense?

I can hear the groans from those who would hurl the label “politically incorrect” as an epithet.

After I verified that these terms were not in our corporate termbase, I began researching online. Wikipedia has an article for whitelist that broadly defines both terms:

A whitelist (or white list) is a list or register of entities that, for one reason or another, are being provided a particular privilege, service, mobility, access or recognition. As a verb, to whitelist can mean to authorize access or grant membership. Conversely, a blacklist is a list or compilation that identifies entities that are denied, unrecognized or ostracized.

The Wikipedia article also distinguishes variant concepts such as commercial and noncommercial e-mail whitelists, and program or application whitelists.

In addition, Wikipedia has not one but two pages for “blacklist.” This term required disambiguation because the newer meaning of “blacklist (computing)” is quite different from the much older and more common usage that relates to politics and civil rights.

Googling further, I found many pages that contained both of these terms. Clearly, these are established buzzwords in the areas of e-mail marketing and spam control. As I suspected, the use of these terms was not entirely, er, black and white. At the top of the Google hit list were discussions about whether these terms were appropriate or potentially offensive.

The colleague who posed the initial question about the appropriateness of the terms clarified that he and his fellow developers use the verb form of these terms in conversation, but not in any user documentation. His question, however, prompted me to wonder whether we do use these terms in our customer-facing materials.

I checked the next most obvious place: the documentation our e-mail marketing software product. Nope, no instances there either, though the user documentation has an extensive and well-written glossary. Of course, the documentation does make use of the concepts that are represented by blacklist and whitelist, but it uses different terminology.

Is it jargon, or “industry standard”?

Here’s my take on this particular terminology, for now: It is clear that the term blacklist, and the newer term whitelist, and yes, graylist, are not racist in origin. Nor are they used today with any connotation about race. But these terms are culture-bound and might present globalization issues. That is, the colors black and white are not globally perceived as negative and positive, respectively. In some cultures, the meaning is the opposite. Furthermore, the concatenation of two words into one ( black list → blacklist ) also carries some meaning that is not possible in other languages. Nor can the noun forms be easily converted into verbs (to be blacklisted or whitelisted) in other languages.

If a more concrete, descriptive way of expressing the concept is available in place of a buzzword, then it is generally preferable. Here is one example from our user’s guide for e-mail marketing software:

The spam detection software has classified this e-mail as potential spam.

Using the blacklist-whitelist terminology, would this be “The spam detection software has blacklisted this e-mail?” Or, “The spam detection software has graylisted this e-mail?” It seems more effective to simply say what we mean in plain English. Plain English is more translatable for our global audience as well.

Of course, if market forces determine that our company must embrace the terms blacklist and whitelist, then we will need to revisit this issue, define what we mean by these terms, and specify the contexts in which we should use them. Terminology does evolve!

Meanwhile, it was good to learn that there are ways to throttle the spam zombies! I think I’ll leave the discussion of that terminology for another day.

Sue can be reached at Sue dot Kocher at sas dot com. End of article.

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