Friday, 26 March 2010

The dynamism of language

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.


  1. I'm with you all the way on the simple rule: if it causes offence, don't say it. But (and I'm taking a very deep breath here) some (and I stress, some) so-called 'interest' groups get so bound up in sophistry they sometimes lose sight of what's really being said. And I know of more than one 'disabled person' who gets sick of other people telling the world what they should be called!

  2. Yes - I agree - That's why I leave it at - it's a minefield - don't get too strung out about it and just aim for courtesy and respect for all! Simple! And I agree - talking about 'groups' and assuming authority over the label they do or don't want is a little odd. Every group will have individuals with different preferences.... I might be offended if a 'Female Society' decided all women and girls were to be labelled 'Female' and female only...You've set me off!

    If the prejudice wasn't there - full stop - we wouldn't have to bother being so careful about the language. There would be a shared understanding (and very little need for labels at all! or the terminology wouldn't matter) There I go off on my idealism again..

  3. Philosophically speaking, and possibly building on your comments last paragraph, isn't most of it all in the delivery and intent of what is said instead of actual word choice?

    For example, if I were to joke to a lady in a bar, 'What a pretty skirt! And what you are wearing is not bad either...'

    Other than getting laughed at for being an ass, I wouldn't mean it in a bad way. If I were berating a woman coworker by emphasizing 'woman' (less charged than 'skirt'), then that would be wrong of me.

    It seems like too much hand wringing sometimes for a minimal payoff.

  4. Eric - I would have killed you if you had said that to me in my early twenties!!!!!
    With love

    I think language can be impactful e.g. teenage parent (you think of female) teenage mother and father - it's not just a female issue.

    However, if, as I said before, people are fundamentally sound with attitudes towards other 'groups' then language would become insignificant. Sadly though - we're not there yet.

    Plus, if you are an 'insider' - you won't have been treated in a discriminatory way (or nowhere near as much)and from a position of 'insidership' are less likely to have developed a touchiness about language - not that all individuals in minorities have - I am probably more sensitive about language than most (and I can only lay claim to social misfit as a minority).

  5. In the 1960's I had a good friend who was coloured. It was offensive to call him black. I still feel a little uneasy today with the opposite terminology or have I got it wrong? Are we back to how it was? It seems to me that they are no more black than we are white.

    I'm way out of touch with what is correct right across the board so I tend to keep silent if in everyone else I suspect.

  6. I don't see a difference between "person with disabilities" and "disabled person", in meaning, or in level of offense.

    I could observe that a disabled toilet (as opposed to a toilet for disabled people) is one that doesn't work at all. Therefore I would expect a disabled person to be completely non-functional, whereas a person with (some) disability(ies) might still have a lot left that works.

  7. of "disabled person" now being the preferred or correct term is interesting. To me, "Person with disabilities" sounds more respectful because it is saying first I am a person, and second, I happen to have disabilities. "Disabled person" puts the disability at the forefront. Could this be a reaction to there being too much sweeping under the carpet of people's disabiliites - as in the UK is way behind in terms of accessibility, attitudes, etc. compared to some countries. I saw a stand up comedian from Vancouver the other night who did some great material on how absolutely behind the UK is on accessibility and rights for disabled people. He slated the London Underground!

    Will have to talk to my friend who works with user groups to improve accessibility for and attitudes to disabled people about terminology...

  8. That was my thinking exactly Claire..until I was corrected. I suspect there is absolutely no uniform agreement and lots of disabled people probably don't overly care. However, some do - so let's respect them! but as you (and the Disabled Society) said...let's not see disability as a bad thing and 'own' it. However - it's all very subtle and probably more than most people are willing to engage with.

    Codgi - like I said - I don't feel it's really our decision to make - advocats of disabled people are best placed to mull terminology over - however subtle the thinking - and then I personally, will respect their conclusion - if and when I hear it. I don't have first hand experience of being disabled so would not choose to assume I know best about anything - or it would feel very patronising on my part.

    Ken D - black and Asian are the acceptable terms now - if needed. You highlight a good point - some people are scared to speak in case of causing offense but if you tune into what is used in the media (not necessarily tabloids - more the BBC news) the terms they use are generally those that have been adopted.

  9. A blog is much better than training for eliciting views to reflect upon isn't it!!!!

  10. I'm with James and Mr C on the diability handle. I wonder which one disabled people with disabilities prefer themselves? I doubt they all agree with those who speak on their behalf. How could they? And even armed with the latest piece of nu-speak it is possible to offend someone who doesn't listen to the radio much and so still prefers the last term but one. And for this reason I agree with Ken. And you too of course, Molly. (I haven't felt so agreeable in a long time.)

  11. Hi Jonathan - your comment came in at the same time as mine....saying the same thing.

    Have you had a bump to the head?

  12. 2 pennorth.
    The person comes BEFORE the disability, i.e. person(s) with a disability. That's why the persons with disabilities whom I know, belong to organizations such as "People First."

  13. That's the thing - it is subtle. Of course Molly, I will use the term that The Disabled Society say is now the preferred term, but as you and Jonathan say, it will not be ALL disabled people's preferred term. You could 'own' your disability but not want it as the first word that people use in their label of you. I will ask my disabled friends what they prefer and refer to them in their preferred way - I have no intention of disprespecting them!!! xxx

  14. All good info. But I do think that PC has gone over the edge in some ways.


  15. Hi the UK's Disabled Society - they have reverted to disabled people but...well I'd just be repeating what I have said in the post and the can see how people can spend hours over it!!

    James - most times - no label is necessary but if needed for some reason to refer to someone I knew, I would ask them what they prefer.

    Sandy - Our tabloids certainly take that line - which is why I probably take the opposite! I cannot assume you do not belong to any minorities - but you might feel differently if you did and had been subjected to discrimination at different times in your life. I think the courteous and respectful language that is adopted is about attempting to combat prejudice in those that are prejudiced....but they are the people who wouldn't care to use the correct language anyway! Language is also about being inclusive....

  16. My policy on this is that if a person to whom my description applies says "I would rather you referred to me as X rather than Y" then I will absolutely respect their request.

    Such a request coming from people claiming to represent such people I treat with a pinch of salt. I'm with Jonathan and James; I simply don't believe that all disabled people think alike.

  17. Codgi - that's what I said too in my comments...and I feel I have reflected a lot on this topic over the years...professionally and personally.

    When people write I'm with so and so and so and so(which they often do)'s like they are an agreement gang. So as I am not in your gang....

    I'm with Jo, Pete, Selina the Slug, Gina, Shakiba, Fred, Carol, Topov, Tim, Greg, Belinda, Yosef, Ronnie the Tick, Brian, Mo, Frank, Jiff, Sooty, Trevor McPhee, Grandpa George, a tin man, a broken wax model of a fairy, Toby and Fifi having a huge marshmallow fight on a village green. There, I feel better cos I have my own gang!

  18. I feel obliged to say "I'm with X or Y" if they have posted a comment that I agree with and I want to say essentially them same thing, since otherwise it looks like I'm claiming the idea as mine.

  19. Oh. Well would you also like to join in with the marshmallow fight?

  20. Yeah! I'm good at marshmallow throwing :)


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