When we think of positive language, anti isn’t the first word that comes to mind. In fact, anti seems like the very opposite of it.
The word is a verbal line in the sand—a division between people who are for something and those who are against it. So, it might surprise you to know that the negative anti is being hailed as a more inclusive way to talk about groups facing discrimination.
What does anti mean?
Anti is most commonly encountered as the prefix anti–, meaning “against” or “opposite of.” In the bathroom, you might wash your hands with antibacterial soap. In literature, we discuss the attributes of an antihero. In politics, people are described as anti-gun or anti-abortion.
The political use of anti is so widespread that it has become a noun, anti, for “a person who is opposed to a particular practice, party, policy, action, etc.” This dates back to the 1780s, originally aimed at Antifederalists in early America.
Anti ultimately comes from Ancient Greek, where it had similar meanings and applications as the prefix described above. While anti appears in some religious terms in Middle English, like Antichrist, it was not commonly used until Modern English, its rise attributed to political slogans and movements, such as the Anti-Corn Law League in Great Britain in the 1830s.
That’s fun … but why exactly are we looking at this word today? Well, the Buzzfeed Style Guide recently urged a writing practice that encourages another way of looking at anti: as an alternative to phobia.
Anti vs. phobia
A phobia is “a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.” It comes from the Greek phobos, “fear,” and is commonly used as a combining form, -phobia.
Arachnophobia, for instance, is “an intense fear of spiders.” Similarly, claustrophobia is “a fear of being in constricted, confined spaces.” These are real, debilitating fears—unlike other more obscure, if fun, –phobia formations such as triskaidekaphobia, or “fear of the number 13,” which is used to name superstitions surrounding the number.
Elsewhere, -phobia is used to name bigoted sentiments, such as Islamophobia, or “the hatred of Muslim people or their culture,” or xenophobia, “fear or hatred of foreigners.” This is where phobia gets contentious.
The BuzzFeed Style Guide recommends its publication’s writers to “opt for ‘anti-gay’ rather than ‘homophobic’; ‘anti-trans’ rather than ‘transphobic.'” The reason, as one editor explained on Twitter in 2019, is that the phobia implies that there is something to fear.
— Dana Sitar (@danasitar) March 29, 2019
To say that someone is homophobic means that they have “unreasoning fear or antipathy toward homosexuals and homosexuality.” While antigay sentiments and behavior are certainly unreasoning, positioning bigotry as a phobia risks legitimizing it as a pathological fear that cannot be controlled or helped. Choosing or being conditioned to hate or discriminate against a group of people, however, is very different from simply being afraid.
There is also the fact that, since phobia typically refers to objects or situations, attaching the word to a group of people runs the risk of objectifying or dehumanizing that group. In most other instances in which we discuss groups of people, we use anti. For instance, if you were talking about a group of people who discriminate against women, you might use anti-feminist or anti-woman. Using anti puts the heat on the haters, while phobia seems to hide behind the hated.
Why does word choice matter here?
The argument for anti vs. phobia hasn’t exactly gone mainstream yet. The Buzzfeed Style Guide is still one of the only main sources calling for the shift. However, as many editors and journalists have pointed out in response, being thoughtful and inclusive in language is more important than ever.
.@BuzzFeedNews’s @styleguide editors are really so key to helping us reporter oafs be mindful and tone-appropriate online. Now more so than ever does language and tone matter in fostering trust with our audiences. It’s a sign of respect to readers. https://t.co/WIu6qHdwY0
— Lam Thuy Vo (@lamthuyvo) March 29, 2019
Antigay and anti-transgender sentiment is, unfortunately, still prevalent in our society. It’s important that we constantly address that problem, and how we talk about it helps.
The distinction between anti and phobia reminds us to think carefully about how the words we use may unintentionally promote fear or boost the signal of discriminatory beliefs and actions that many of us are subjected to and fighting against. Words matter—and words can help make a difference. That’s why it’s worth considering being, at least in this case, pro anti.