When I deliver diversity training, I always arrive at the minefield part that is about language.
As an activity, I ask people to speculate why some people (in some minorities) might prefer the second term:
Immigrants > migrant workers
Homosexual > gay
Victims of bullying > targets of bullying
Teenage parent > teenage mother and father
traveller > Traveller
This is not an overly easy task and I stress that not every individual in these groups would have issue with the first term being used - far from it. But I use it to illustrate how complex the issue of language can be.
One of the main reasons for the difficulty in language is that it is dynamic. Some words develop negative connotations - often because of the media - and therefore these words are replaced or tuned more finely. No single person could be expected to know the up-to-date term for everything. In fact, to expect that causes people to become defensive. i.e. if you make them feel 'caught out' they will almost always say something like, 'that's political correctness gone crazy.'
The term 'political correctness' for this reason has negative connotations and therefore 'courtesy and respect,' are the terms that are better used to describe using appropriate language. Hopefully these terms will stay 'safe'!
The advice I give is:
1) Once you learn that a term might cause offence to a ‘group’ or some individuals within a ‘group’ – stop using it – even if you hear others using it.
2) Try not to be defensive if you are ‘caught out’ – we all are at some point! (And like-wise, if you inform someone of the up-to-date language that has been adopted, be gentle!)
3) Be aware that language does change – terms need to be changed if they start to have negative connotations
4) In most situations a ‘label’ is not necessary.
5) Ask – if you don’t know.
I was 'caught out' a while ago because I referred to someone as a 'person with disabilities' as opposed to 'disabled person'. The Disabled Society has had huge debates over language (like many organisations) and have gone with 'disabled person' and their reasoning was explained to me third hand. It was something like: the disabled person owns their disability and it is in the eyes of those exercising prejudice towards disabled people that make that a problem. I think I get it. But for now, I am glad I have been 'taught' the term that will hopefully cause the least offence! Some people put a lot of thought (on our behalf) into the best term to use to describe a group - so I am happy to go with their result -once I have learnt it.