Is "Fortune Teller" An Offensive Term?

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
An astrologer interprets the planets' activity and puts it in the context of our everyday lives. A tarot reader develops a unique understanding of their deck and infers meaning from the specific cards they draw. Someone who practices palmistry analyzes the shapes and lines in a client's hand for signs of their life path. All of these people practice very different forms of divination, yet they're often lumped into the same ragtag category of spiritual workers known as "fortune tellers."
In the public imagination, that term comes attached to an image of a wizened crone hunched over a crystal ball — hardly the social media savvy astrologers we turn to for our "fortune" needs these days, and yet it persists. It isn't just that the blanket term for so many different disciplines of divination strikes us as inaccurate. When other titles and descriptions for these individuals' practices exist, is calling them "fortune tellers" downright offensive?
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Darcey Leonard, founder of Tarot Society, a divination reading room in New York City, tells Refinery29 her feelings about the term are, in a word, mixed. "I use it reluctantly," Leonard, who identifies as a comparative occultist and a sovereign witch, says. "To the lay person, that is the term that they are looking under when they seek our services, but I do find it reductive and very broad."
She compares calling a spiritual worker a "fortune teller" to referring to anyone with any sort of doctorate (be it a PhD or MD) as "doctor." Such a vague title just doesn't reflect the actual work they do on a regular basis. But there are other reasons for readers and diviners to bristle at the term, too.
"'Fortune teller' can have a bit of a charlatan or con vibe to it," Leonard says, adding that she mostly takes issue with the word "fortune." Where calling a divination practice a "reading" suggests a level of expertise, describing it as "having your fortune told" makes the service sound like little more than a novelty. A "fortune" implies that the client comes away with a tepid platitude about their life instead of a useful, inventive take on what they ought to do. "We like to be as specific as possible and give people insight into [how to] bring balance to their whole lives, not just their 'fortune.'"
As much as Leonard would like to see the term "fortune" redefined, she doesn't think "the stigma is big enough" to abandon "fortune teller" altogether. But, rather than assume anyone's title, simply ask your go-to reader about their personal spiritual practice. Not only will you learn more about their techniques, you'll get a better idea of what they'd like to be called. And then you can ask about that big promotion you've been waiting on.
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