Stubborn Myths and Dated Terms We'd Like to Retire in 2016

A New Year’s wish list from CityLab.

Image potential past / Flickr
potential past / Flickr

Whether they’re overused, misunderstood, or wrongfully deployed, sometimes good words and concepts go bad. As CityLab wraps up 2015 and looks forward to a new year full of promise, we’ve compiled the following list of myths we’re tired of debunking and phrases we’re tired of seeing—not to mention writing. Maybe, just maybe, if we all hold hands and jump together, we can reduce the number of times we’re collectively forced to contend with these terms in 2016.

Happy New Year, CityLab readers!

“Uber for X”—Given’s Uber’s early success in capturing the world’s hunger for on-demand services, it’s no surprise that subsequent startups have tried to mimic their business model, giving rise to the “Uber for X” phenomenon. Such companies often tout themselves as the “Uber for” groceries, maids, trucks, or haircuts. All this, however, feels like it’s finally getting awfully boring. There’s even a startup called Mowares that’s offering an “Uber for X” starter kit for a mere $400.

Not to mention, Uber’s model of outsourcing labor to contract workers to keep costs low clearly still has issues that need sorting out. At CityLab, we’re all for entrepreneurial spirit, but we’d love to write about some startups in the new year that offer something more than just an “Uber for X” copycat.—Linda Poon

The Charles Dickens Museum is seen here in central London. DO reread Dickens when you’re able. DON’T borrow his book titles to explain economic segregation. (REUTERS/Toby Melville)

“A Tale of Two Cities”—The story of Baltimore in the Freddie Gray-era is not a tale of two cities. Neither is the story of where Michael Brown lived a story of two Fergusons. This dichotomous lens may have been applicable in the time of Dickens (though I doubt it), but anyone who used this term as a lens to understand a place in 2015 was not looking carefully.

Today’s cities are not neatly split between black and white, or rich and poor. Trying to sum up any urban landscape, or any urban tragedy, in just two settings assumes that everyone within those binaries shares similar experiences. A queer black woman has a different city experience than a straight black woman; a Mexican-American construction worker has a different experience than a Cuban-American police officer. Describing any story as “a tale of two cities” erases too many unique points of view. It’s time to put this one in the coffin.—Brentin Mock

“Artisanal”—I get tons of emails trying to sell me handmade, homespun caramels or crafts. Everything is “artisanal.” This word has been casually tossed around to refer to anything that borders on twee; it’s lost its status as something that nods to a skilled trade or impressive feat. Dipping a marshmallow in some coconut might make it a great snack, but it doesn’t make it artisanal.

Look, I get it: We live in a world of $6 bowls of cereal, owl cafes, and murals made out of yarn. It’s pretty twee in here. But unless you’re hyping some hand-chiseled skyscraper or thread dyed with rainbow unicorn tears—which I’m not ruling out—please pick a different adjective.—Jessica Leigh Hester

Bread is bread. Can we drop the “artisanal” please? (Rob Bertholf / Flickr)

“Eyesore”This word drives me crazy because it’s so lazy. It’s often used to express disgust over inadequate infrastructure or buildings that appear to be mere expressions of an architect’s ego. But if it’s suffering from neglect, then say so. Is it dangerous? Explain how. Design tastes vary, so an explanation of why your object of derision is so bad for the people who use it will always be worth more than some vague sense that you just don’t like the looks of it, for whatever reason.—Mark Byrnes

Wider Roads = Less Traffic—The most enduring popular traffic myth holds that building more roads always leads to less congestion. This belief is a perfectly logical one: if there are 100 cars packed into one highway lane, then building a second should mean there’s 50 cars in each. The problem, as transportation researchers have found again and again, is that when this new lane gets added the number of cars doesn’t stay the same. On the contrary, people who stopped driving out of frustration with traffic now attack the road with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.

While residents of heavily congested metro areas have a suite of four-letter words to describe this effect, experts call it “induced demand.” What this means, simply put, is that building more road eventually (if not always immediately) leads to more traffic, not less. Fortunately, local leaders are starting to distinguish reality from myth when it comes to induced demand. Unfortunately, the best way to address it—congestion pricing—remains all-but politically impossible in the U.S. That pretty much leaves one thing to do: deal with it.—Eric Jaffe

“Creative Placemaking”In context—parks, plazas, and other public places—creative placemaking is a great thing. The term itself, however, has got to go. It’s an abysmally passive phrase that swaps out artists for nameless planning bureaucrats. “Creative placemaking” describes public art without mentioning art, artists, or artworks. It’s a way of framing the power of public art, and calling for investment in public art, without, you know, talking about art. Too often, “creative placemaking” seems to describe a process: art is useful insofar as it placemakes. It’s not the planning field’s fault that the term’s usage has grown to near-ubiquity; the National Endowment for the Arts embraced “creative placemaking” in a big way a few years back. Since then, it’s grown clear that this framework obscures an important division of labor. Artists should be a partner in creating public spaces, not a subcontractor.—Kriston Capps

Placemake this! (SPUR / Flickr)

“Climate-Change Doubter”—When I started writing about weather for a Virginia TV station in 2010, I used “climate-change denier” to refer to a person who doesn't believe global warming is real (or that it's real but not human-caused). I was quickly advised by a station meteorologist to drop this term, as people might see an offensive similarity to “Holocaust denier.” Why anybody would draw a comparison between these vastly different things is beyond me, but I nevertheless switched to the less-forceful “climate-change skeptic.”

Now that term seems to be falling out of favor, to judge from a revision in the AP Stylebook (a writing guide used by many journalists). The AP would have us use “climate-change doubters” or “those who reject mainstream climate science” because, as outlined in an editor’s memo:

Scientists who consider themselves real skeptics—who debunk mysticism, ESP and other pseudoscience, such as those who are part of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry—complain that non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science have usurped the phrase skeptic. They say they aren’t skeptics because “proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.”

But “doubter” still isn't the right term. That's because multitudes argue against climate change for nonscientific reasons. They don't like the president who talks about it, for example, or they are paid by the fossil-fuels industry to blow smoke over the facts. Like 97 percent of scientists, they don't at all doubt it's happening, they just refuse for whatever weird or selfish reason to say otherwise. (This includes executives at companies like Exxon, who knew about the dangers of greenhouse gases decades ago yet continued to fund anti-global-warming campaigns.)

So I'm leaving “skeptic” and “doubter” in the dust and going back to “denier,” at least until a better d-word comes along—perhaps “dillweed” or “dummy”?—John Metcalfe

”Hipsters”As any CityLab staffer will tell you, filing a story containing this word is an excellent way to make yours truly begin shouting expletives and sputtering incoherently about how life may no longer be worth living. I hardly know what to say about the continued use of this term anymore; it’s just so meaningless. Are hipsters people who dress a certain way? (And if so, which way is that?). Or drink certain kinds of beers? (Cheap? Fancy? I sure don’t know!). Or live in certain cities or neighborhoods? (Surely there are people who live in Brooklyn who are not hipsters?). It’s 2015, and the Des Moines Register is writing about the rise of “artisanal bread” in Iowa. Whatever “hipsters” may have signified 10 or 15 years ago, this term has lost its usefulness entirely. Either we’re all hipsters now, or no one is.—Sommer Mathis

”Illegals”—The rhetoric deployed in the immigration debate in 2015 was problematic on a number of levels. But the term that needs to be discarded most urgently has been in use for many years. “Illegals” or “illegal aliens” remained generously (or stubbornly) employed in 2015 to refer to immigrants who entered the U.S. without authorization.

In 1970, immigration activists actually preferred the term to much more problematic alternatives, as NPR’s Adrian Florido has explained. But over the last 45-plus years, the label has taken on the weight of the prejudices borne by those who wield it. The good news is that activists, news organizations, Supreme Court justices, and even political leaders are all arguing that it’s finally time to retire it completely.

Discouraging the use of this semantically-inaccurate term isn’t just a politically correct frill or a distraction. Nor is it an excuse for legal transgressions. Instead it’s an acknowledgement that undocumented immigrants are human beings—not nameless, faceless problems.—Tanvi Misra

Millennials: Not all stiff plastic white dummies who look and dress and act exactly the same. (REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

“Millennials”—I appreciate the need to categorize age groups for sociological study. Planners must be able gauge how much housing and how many jobs are awaiting young adults entering the workforce, for instance. But the term "millennials" has proven uniquely capable of absorbing all kinds of meanings beyond a strict temporal boundary. The result has been a perception of an entire generation made up of white, upper-middle-class urbanites from prestigious universities, more concerned about which tech startup to accept a job with than where their next meal is coming from. Because who else was born in the 1980s and ’90s?

This summer, a web browser extension that converts each mention of “millennial” in news stories to ”snake person” revealed the absurdity of some of the claims about the people supposedly in this cohort. Here's hoping the 2016 conversation on generational change and cultural mores can move beyond the buzzwords and towards a little more specificity and substance.—Julian Spector

“Resilience”—In these uncertain times, governments, corporations, non-profits, and their leaders all claim “resilience” as a central goal. But to “build resilience” for the future, as so many sectors wish to do, is vague at best, and evades accountability at worst. To judge groups of people by their “resilience” also risks ignoring insufferable conditions under which they may have already been living. Human lives and ecosystems deserve honest, explicit survival plans from those charged with their protection. Deploying the term “resilience” alone, without backing it up with concrete actions, is just lip-service.—Laura Bliss

“Wage Gap”—These words have quickly become an inadequate, all-encompassing term for inequality in the workplace. In the new year, my hope is to encourage a more nuanced understanding of this concept (and how it extends beyond gender) in order to craft more effective policies.—Aria Bendix

Sometimes a company is just a company. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Sharing Economy”—2015 was the year the AP finally banned using the term “ride-sharing” to describe companies such as Uber and Lyft. (It was CityLab’s editorial policy long before.) It was also the year Uber launched its endgame of platform domination, integrating with other apps; delivering kittens, food, and flu shots; and successfully trolling the de Blasio administration. Meanwhile, another “sharing economy” app, Airbnb, caught flak for its ill-advised ad campaign against regulation in San Francisco. Whether you applaud these companies for the flexibility they offer or bemoan them for the job security they don’t, you should call them what they are: businesses with a bottom line. They are not altruistic institutions, just into sharing and good vibes.—Vicky Gan

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