A bagged lunch, shown as part of a brown-bag lunch campaign in North Dakota. (Credit North Dakota Department of Health)
Public information officers for the City of Seattle have been advised to stop using the terms "citizen" and "brown bag" -- as in brown-bag lunch -- saying they could be offensive to some city residents.
Elliott Bronstein of the Office for Civil Rights circulated the memo encouraging government employees to avoid using the potentially offensive terms.
Instead of "brown-bag lunch," he suggests "sack lunch" or, for some inexplicable reason "lunch-and-learn," as in, "do you want to go out with us, or are you lunch-and-learning it?"
He defended the recommendation on the radio, saying the term "brown bag" has a sordid history.
"For a lot of particularly African American community members, the phrase brown bag does bring up associations with the past when a brown bag was actually used, I understand, to determine if people's skin color was light enough to allow admission to an event or to come into a party that was being held in a private home."
As for "citizen," Bronstein notes there are many legal residents of Seattle who are not citizens.
"A lot of people who live in Seattle aren't citizens, but they are residents," said Bronstein. "They are legal residents of the United States and they are residents of Seattle. They pay taxes and if we use a term like citizens in common use, then it doesn't include a lot of folks."
Critics say it's political correctness gone mad, and liken it to recent efforts to use gender-neutral language like "first-year" for "freshman" and "handwriting" for "penmanship."
"We change our language constantly," Bronstein said. "The very words and phrases you're using to talk to me now is not the way either of us would have spoken when we were in our twenties back in the 1970s."