by Stephanie Hauer
The language we use is vital. The words we choose shape our understanding of the world around us and the ideas we have in response to that world. Language is potent. It can inspire, validate, identify, and promote understanding. It can also demotivate, disrespect, erase, and confuse. The way that we use our words can influence those around us in incredibly important ways. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a full-time activist in order to change your language use. Anyone can work to incorporate more sensitive and empowering language habits into their daily life.
There are numerous vulnerable identities and communities that find their dignity attacked by language use. This can be manifested in conscious ways, such as the use of slurs and stereotypes, or in unconscious ways, such as the use of microaggressions and unintentional offenses. This article explores some examples, but it is not an all-encompassing list. Hopefully, learning about the trends present in these five examples will help you notice similar patterns and allow you to interrogate language use across the board.
People with disabilities and/or mental illnesses are people with inherent dignity not lessened by their conditions. In order to reflect the intrinsic value of all human life, there has been a recent shift toward “person-first language.” Person-first language takes the form of phrases such as “man with depression” or “woman with Down syndrome,” where the individual is mentioned first and the condition comes second. Its direct counterpart is “identity-first language,” where the condition is mentioned first and the individual is mentioned second. Examples include “schizophrenic girl” or “anorexic boy.”
Both methods of reference are valid, and different people prefer one or the other. Some people prefer identity-first language because they consider their disability to be an important part of who they are. Others prefer person-first language because it emphasizes their personhood over their condition. Each individual has governance over how they are referred to, and we should all do our best to use the language someone requests. But on a large scale, person-first language is often the default. It shifts the focus to the person, encompassing their capabilities, strengths, and choices. It directs attention to the individual, rather than the condition, which can help them feel like they are not invisible, or that their condition is not the only thing noticeable about them. Person-first language can even encourage people without disabilities and mental illnesses to think about those who do have such conditions in a more hopeful and holistic light.
Another recent shift is in the language around sexual violence. The term “survivor” is utilized with increasing regularity, often replacing the term “victim.” As in the disability context, individuals have the right to determine what words are used to describe them. If someone who has experienced sexual violence indicates that they prefer “survivor” or “victim,” that is the term that should be used to describe them. Something as simple as swapping out a word can be remarkably healing for someone who has been through a form of sexual violence. By its very nature, sexual assault disregards a person's autonomy and violates their sense of control over what happens to them. Changing your language based on their request is a small way to restore that sense of control and respect their autonomy. It can make a substantial impact on their sense of security and respect.
The use of “survivor” is meant to be empowering and and encouraging. “Survivor” carries with it connotations of perseverance, progress, mobility, and even thriving.1 It is meant to replace the negative connotations of “victim,” which can imply helplessness, weakness, and entrapment. The general shift towards the use of “survivor” is an acknowledgement of the dignity of those who have experienced sexual violence. It shows that their assault does not dictate their entire life, and that they are not wholly defined by their assault. However, some people feel that the term “survivor” has taken on new connotations of forced heroism, obligated healing, and finalized perfection. They feel that being a “survivor” means that one never shows any manifestation of trauma because one has “gotten over it,” and they must now serve as an “inspiration” by making the best out of a bad situation. That is why some people prefer to use the the term “victim,” but are fighting to change the negative stigma around the word itself.2
When discussing persons in the womb, the term “unborn” has been the long-standing default. However, more and more people are switching to the term “preborn.” Based on the function of these prefixes, this shift is quite logical. The prefix un- comes from Old High German, and it is used in modern English to imply reversal or negation.3 A baby in the womb has not had their birth reversed; it simply has not happened yet. Negation comes closer, since the baby has not been born, but un- also implies some level of finality. On the other hand, the prefix pre- comes from Latin and means “before.” This is a much more accurate, since the baby in the womb is simply in the stage of life before birth. Using the term “preborn” calls attention to to the fact that this baby is the same person before and after their birth. While birth is an important marker in the lifetime of the baby, it is not a threshold that determines their personhood.
Language and its relation to racism is a massive topic. Historically, language has been used to dehumanize groups which people in power find undesirable and to justify acts of racial violence. Usage of both overtly and covertly racist language has spread far and wide. One such example is the prevalence of microaggressions. The term “microaggression” comes from the field of psychology, and it refers to “implicit, often unconscious insults directed at people from historically disadvantaged groups.”4 Many times, people who use microaggressions aren’t aware that they are using them. An individual microaggression usually doesn’t cause the listener severe distress on its own, but they can add up over time to create a sense of alienation.
Microaggressions can take the form of words, expressions, phrases, or questions. For example, the word “gypped,” which usually means getting cheated in some way, comes from the term “gypsy.” “Gypsy” refers to the Romani people (often in a negative light), and the term “gypped” implies that Romani people are sly, devious, cheating thieves.5 Another example is pointedly asking a person of color “where they’re really from?” The intention behind this question is usually to find out about their heritage, but asking where someone is really from implies that they can’t possibly be an actual local because their skin says otherwise. Microaggressions take on numerous forms, and it can be difficult to completely eradicate them; thankfully, there are excellent resources with lots of information to help people understand and avoid using microaggressions in the future.
Another area that is seeing a shift in language is the realm of gender. Finding language that is gender inclusive is becoming increasingly common and takes on many forms. Removing the suffix of “policeman” and turning it into “police officer,” for example, acknowledges that not all police officers are men. The same is true for positions like “chairman,” which can be changed to “chairperson,” or for roles like “freshmen,” which can be changed to “first-year student.” When unsure of someone’s gender, the honorifics of “Mr.” and “Ms.” can be replaced with “Mx.” The pronoun “they” can be used to refer to a singular person of unspecified gender; it can seem unusual if you were raised to think of “they” in the plural only, but itis a gender-inclusive way to refer to individuals, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, among others.6
Some people express their gender identity differently over time, and may request that others refer to them with a new name and/or pronouns. This type of language shift is incredibly important in validating that person’s identity and has very tangible effects. A study in Austin, Texas showed that transgender youths who could use their chosen name and pronouns at school, work, with friends, and at home demonstrated a 65% decrease in suicide attempts, 34% decrease in suicidal thoughts, and 71% fewer symptoms of depression.7 If they could only use their chosen name and pronouns in one of those four contexts, they still showed a 29% decrease in suicidal thoughts.7 Clearly, referring to someone with the name and pronouns that they ask for is an powerful choice.
As much as language is important, it is also fluid and variable. Language changes over time. As such, the terminology and phrases that are considered sensitive and respectful today may be considered offensive and outdated in the near future. In linguistics, the scientific study of language, this is referred to as the “euphemism treadmill.”8 This theory refers to the process by which a word which was originally introduced to replace an offensive term eventually becomes offensive itself and gets replaced by a new word, and the cycle continues. It can seem exhausting to keep up, running on this metaphorical treadmill. But the benefits that come from a sincere attempt to use language to rehumanize those around us make it worth the effort.
1 Wu, Gwendolyn, "'Survivor' Versus 'Victim': Why Choosing Your Words Carefully Is Important," HelloFlo, March 13, 2016, Accessed May 14, 2019. http://helloflo.com/survivor-vs-victim-why-choosing-your-words-carefully-is-important/.
2 Campoamor, Daniella. "Why You Need to Stop Calling Sexual Assault Victims ‘Survivors’," Harper's BAZAAR, May 21, 2018, Accessed May 14, 2019.