I wrote three tweets last week which I’d like to summarise here:

#BlackLivesMatter

#TransRightsAreHumanRights

#StayHome

The last one — about COVID-19 — is difficult to do if you’re protesting, so stay safe and wear a mask. Remember that the mask must cover both your mouth and your nose.

I also wrote on this website a few months ago about how words matter, so in the spirit of following my own advice, I’ve renamed all the public repositories on my GitHub profile, from master to main. It’s a small thing, but small things can cause great change if enough people do them. Scott has more on his website.

Edited on 2020-06-15 to add the following:

Git was created by Linus Torvalds in 2005 in a hurry, because Larry McVoy, the owner of the source-control management tool BitKeeper, removed free access to his tool citing another incident. Linus borrowed a number of design elements from BitKeeper, including the “master” terminology for main branches, which itself was derived from “master/slave” terminology.

In his post which I linked to previously, Scott Hanselman cites the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), who state that, “[i]n addition to being inappropriate and arcane, the master-slave metaphor is both technically and historically inaccurate.” That hyperlink goes directly to the BitKeeper source code on GitHub, where it references that inappropriate, arcane, and oppressive metaphor.

The IETF points out that this terminology was brought into tech despite other terminology in use (see Ron Eglash, “Broken Metaphor: The Master-Slave Analogy in Technical Literature“, Technology and Culture, vol. 48 no. 2, 2007, pp. 360-369, 2007). In other words, we had other words but thought it was a good idea to be racist instead.

As for the argument that “master” is a word that covers other definitions unrelated to slavery, I remind those people that master is an explicitly sexist term, and a simple look at its etymology demonstrates that.

Given the state of the world right now, it is necessary to challenge our use of certain words, replacing them with more inclusive language that is both anti-racist and anti-sexist. English has, depending on which expert you ask, between half a million and 750,000 words. The IETF even provides a list of suggested replacements for certain “common” but certainly unnecessarily overloaded terms.

Being so hung up on a word or phrase because it’s how you’ve always done it, ignores the pain that language causes to other people. It’s gaslighting. It’s gatekeeping, and I wrote a series on that on my technical blog.

Ignoring what other people say about the language you use is implicit endorsement of that language use. It makes you racist. It makes you sexist.

Do better.

2 Replies to “Change by a thousand choices”

  1. Thank you, Randolph. Do you have any suggestions for a better term than “master data”?

    I’ve seen “reference data” used a few times, but that often refers more to lookup tables than entities like a “customer master” or “patient master”.

    1. Primary / secondary works in a surprising number of places, like we use for availability groups. Primary / replica, too.

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