George S. Ledyard wrote:
As you may or may not know, this is a distinction that a large number of Buddhists would take issue with. Hinayana means "Lesser Vehicle" and is the term used by the followers of the Mahayana or "Great(er) Vehicle". The correct name for the tradition is Theravada or Tradition of the Elders.
This is kind of like the name we use for the people associated with the cliff dwellings in the Southwest, the Anessazi. Native peoples don''t use that name which apparently means "enemy" in Navaho and was picked up from them by the White folks.
Actually, I personally do not like it when my friends who also follow Tibetan Buddhism blanket all of Theravada and the other schools early Buddhism as "Hinayana." In Tibet they made a lot of blanket statements about followers of the "Hinayana" (such as saying they're all selfish and only care about themselves) because they were such an isolated country and probably never even met a "Hinayana" practitioner. One could argue that the Tibetans picked that attitude from India, but I'm not so sure because there wasn't such a big distinction between Mahayana and Hinayana early on, as we know from records from Chinese explorers. One explorer even called one sect "Mahayana Theravada." Also, one of my classmates who's a Theravada practitioner told me recently that they do speak of or have the bodhisattva path in his school of Buddhism.
Because we have access to information like this, we don't have any excuse for ignorantly referring to Theravadins by a derogatory name today, but attitudes like these still persist as they're transported from the other cultures along with the religion. However, I think that within certain contexts, we sometimes might need to use the word Hinayana. Within Tibetan Buddhism, there are traditionally three different categories in which one puts the Buddhist teachings--Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Simply replacing the word "Hinayana" for "Theravada" in all contexts would lead to a lot of confusion since there are undoubtedly a lot of instances where the Tibetans group something that is not a Theravada practice as a Hinayana practice.
However, I think that when referring to actual practitioners and the school of Buddhism, we should say Theravada rather Hinayana. To be polite, too, rather than saying "it's like Mahayana and Hinayana," we could say, "it's like the path of the bodhisattva and the path to becoming an arhat."
But language takes a long time to change, even when we're bringing in words and ideas from another culture. It's like what Reb Zalman, a former teacher at Naropa University and founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, talks about when he compares saying sunrise and sunset to "the earth turning to receive its daily portion of sun." We don't think the earth is flat anymore, but our language it still stuck in the appearance that the sun is moving.