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Users, industry debate use of terms 'master' and 'slave'

Los Angeles County has raised concerns about the use of the terms "master" and "slave" to refer to technology products. Some say the words are needlessly offensive, though the majority of voters in a poll disagree.

Last month, Los Angeles County raised concerns about the use of the terms "master" and "slave" to refer to technology products. It's a controversial stance that has both supporters and critics in the technology realm.

In a poll being conducted on, as of 11:00a.m. EST today 92% of respondents said they did not find the terminology offensive. However, some technology experts support changing the terms, saying that they are antiquated and may be needlessly offensive.

Los Angeles County decided to take issue with the terms after an employee filed a complaint with the county's Office of Affirmative Action Compliance. The employee saw the words "master" and "slave" stamped on video equipment and was offended by the terminology.

In computer networks and with other electronics and machinery, the terms are used to describe when one device or process, known as the master, controls one or more other devices or processes, known as slaves.

Dennis Tafoya, director of the Office of Affirmative Action Compliance, said that his staff conducted an audit of county offices and learned that the terms were commonly found on video and computer equipment, particularly older devices.

Tafoya said that it is understandable that those terms could be upsetting to someone, given America's history with slavery and the fact that slavery continues in some countries to this day.

Reader comments
Many readers responded passionately to our informal poll on the "master" and "slave" terminology issue. To read those comments or add your own, visit our poll Sound-Off forum.

To comment on this article, click the Sound-Off link near the bottom of this page.

"Whether you are African-American or not, slavery is still an issue," Tafoya said. "Terms resonate in different ways for people, and this is our effort to try to ameliorate any offensive language in the work environment."

Tafoya instructed employees in Los Angeles County to cover the terms with tape and to re-label devices as "primary" and "secondary."

The county also sent letters to 1,000 vendors concerning the issue. The county asked the vendors to remove product labels that could be considered offensive.

"We are not into changing industry standards, but we do have a responsibility to look at terms that may have upset someone," Tafoya said.

IBM is among those vendors that the county contacted. IBM's spokesman on racial diversity, James Sinocci, was unable to track down any information about the letter IBM received from Los Angeles County. However, he said he understands how employees or customers could be offended by the terms "master" and "slave."

IBM makes an effort to keep its language neutral, he said, even going so far as to use the term "position paper" instead of "white paper," even though the term "white" refers only to the color of the paper commonly used for such reports.

The words "master" and "slave," he said, are unnecessarily provocative.

"IBM would probably not use those terms if we were coming up with names today," he said. "We would use different terms, such as 'control disk' and 'server disk.'"

Scott Nathan, a Framingham, Mass.-based attorney who specializes in technology, also finds fault with the terms. "I remove the terms 'master' and 'slave' when I find them in a contract," he said.

Nathan said that there are many possible alternate phrases that could be used that would not offend anyone.

But most respondents to's survey did not find the terms offensive. Steve Buell, a team leader with the Canadian government's human resources division, said that there are many terms commonly used in the technology industry that could be found offensive, including terms such as "promiscuous" mode, and "male" and "female" connectors.

"My biggest concern with political correctness is where does it stop?" Buell asked.

Other readers posting to's Sound-Off forum said that the terms were a clear way to describe the relationship between two components and that the words have nothing to do with the practice of slavery.

One reader wrote that there should be a higher threshold for determining offensive material. "Things will always change. What we have to be careful of is change for no good reason," he wrote.

Nathan, however, said that even if these phrases do not offend a large number of people, the changes could be made simply and swiftly. "What is the harm in making the change?" he asked.


Vote in our poll: Are the terms "master" and "slave" offensive?

Check out the definition of "master" and "slave".

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