The Case Against Italicizing “Foreign” Words


When Emily Dickinson implored us to “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” she wasn’t referring to an injunction to italicize words that people outside hegemonic cultures use on a regular basis, yet are deemed “other.” She was, we assume, referring to telling the truth in an uncommon way, encouraging us to create newness with language—and this newness, this uncommonness, is what is often implied with slanting words: italics.

In the past several years, working alongside fellow writers and translators who strive to operate with feminist, decolonial aesthetics (including my cohort of contributors to Sophie Collins’s edited volume Currently and Emotion: Translations, as well as Tilted Axis Press), I’ve become invested in the active ethos of not italicizing supposedly “foreign” words—words that supposedly aren’t used in the dominant culture. I’ve come to understand the practice of italicizing such words as a form of linguistic gatekeeping; a demarcation between which words are “exotic” or “not found in the English language,” and those that have a rightful place in the text: the non-italicized.

This magazine does not italicize non-English words for that reason, a policy I wish other English-language publications would emulate. So normalized is it to italicize the dominated “othered” that it takes people, myself included, many years if not decades to unlearn this trick.

Let’s use the example of food, a topic I’m always eager to discuss as a woman who is often hungry. At what point does a food word become worthy of inclusion in the English language, and according to whom? Who are the editors of which dictionaries? Which populations do they look at for usage frequency, considering more and more of the world (worryingly, for the state of linguistic diversity and cultural preservation in many regions) uses English regularly?