Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A Rose By Any Other Name Is Just As Thorny

In my morning paper, I read that refugees from the storm don't much like the word "refugees" as the story linked to the title of this blog suggests. The problem is that the word is taken by at least some of these Katrina victims as having a negative implication. Are they being oversensitive? In my experience, many if not most White people will say they are. All you have to do to see that this might be so is consult the sports message boards on the issue of whether our universities should use Indian names and logos as accouterments for their sports teams. White people in my experience feel qualified to say what is and isn't insulting to minorities in this country.

Interestingly, I also found this morning a BBC News item bearing on this issue.

In every age, schoolchildren have an armoury of words most calculated to hurt and humiliate each other.

The words change from generation to generation, but one thing usually stays the same: adults shudder with shame at the words they used as children.

Learning difficulties, cerebral palsy, Romanies: all terms now used respectfully where once euphemisms were abuse.

And now, it seems, playgrounds up and down the country are resounding with the latest taunt: Refugee.
So, it seems that some of our British brethren see the word the same way.

One thing is for sure, the word "refugee" has no good connotations. I have never heard anyone say anything like I yearn to be a refugee. In the story linked through the Title of this blog, we find

For some, the word "refugee" is loaded with racial undertones, conveys too sorry a fate for the victims, or simply doesn't, in its dictionary definition, apply. For others, there's just no better way to describe the horrific condition of the hurricane victims.
There would be an excellent reason for seeing "refugee" is racial terms in the New Orleans circumstance: one rarely saw a White face amongst the persons evacuated to the Superdome and Convention Center. Some 67% of the New Orleans citizenry were Black and many if not most were poor. I suspect that New Orleans was as bad as any city in the country in this respect and this is ironic in a way for the fame of this city rests more on on the musical contributions of African-Americans in the form of jazz than any other single thing, with the free flowing booze being second. To gourmands, its food is a reason to visit. .

I am not sure how these Americans who have been put out of their homes by Katrina should be referred to but I am quite sure that it shouldn't be up to me or any other White person. It is clear that "refugees" is a very bad choice on either side of the Atlantic. I would suggest that they not be referred to as "homeless." That would be a step in the wrong direction. "Displaced persons" has some left over negative connotations from WW II to some of us older people. There may not be a good term, primarily because their circumstance is so bad.

President Bush is cited in as saying

"The people we're talking about are not refugees," the president said, according to the Associated Press. "They are Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens."
I am pleased to read of this. Actually, to be honest, I am a little shocked.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the whole discussion of "refugee" curious. At worst, the word is undergoing a semantic shift, not yet adopted by everyone. No one, after all, would suggest that Woody Guthrie was denigrating persons from Oklahoma when he wrote "Dust Bowl Refugees" or that race had anything to do with it.

So the best case is that the word is narrowing in meaning, with the current situation not falling within the narrower sense, and eventually everyone will catch up. Another possibility is that the negative connotations are attached to the situation, not the word, and that these connotations will accordingly attach themselves to whatever word replaces "refugee". Then we end up with another absurd endlessly changing string of new euphemisms.

The the invocation of race is especially strange. Yes, the people in question are disproportionately non-white, and that is a tragedy that cries out in its own right. But race is incidental to the situation of being forced to abandon one's home. Would we be using a word other than "refugee" were the people in question white? I doubt it. "Refugee" has been used because that it is matter-of-fact obvious word.

Finally we come to the idea that non-white people can dictate the language regardless of circumstances: If I pack a lunch and eat it outside, I call that a "picnic". I really don't care about any Just So stories anyone makes up about the word.

10:52 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Richard, I think the denotation of "refugee" has remained constant through my life, which goes back to WW II. Whatever secondary significances it may have will vary with circumstances as you say. After WW II, there were many different kinds of people who were refugees, many of whom were Jewish or Slavic. After the Vietnam war, they were Vietnamese.
Right now, there are many Whites who have been dislocated (e. g., a Biloxi cousin of mine, her husband, daughter, son-in-law, and son) often had the resources to go to friends or relatives they could stay after her house was obliterated. My cousin and her family had a functional car (not sure how that happened exactly) and had offers from people in Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Ohio at a minimum, and since the daughter's home survived they all have a place to return to in Biloxi when essential services return. It was the poor, who are mostly Black, who got stuck where they were in New Orleans and they will surely dominate the rolls of the dead and the rolls of those who are displaced from their homes. The secondary significance in which "refugee" has picked up the color "Black" in the USA is due entirely, I suspect, to the TV images we have all seen. The people shown have been primarily Black. In ten years, I suspect we will see refugees differently. But the denotation will stay the same.

7:58 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you mind if I digress from your interesting post on the evolution of language for a moment? I have a question for you. Which is correct in your opinion? 'Friendlier' or 'more friendly'?
'Friendliest' or 'most friendly'?

I would love to hear your opinion.

All the best,

Alex from Blog from Italy

8:35 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

If you are just asking me which I think I say, it would be the +ier and +iest forms. Bisyllabic words tend to go that way. Trisyllabic words normally require "more/less" and "mostleast." "Beautifuler" is a mess.

"Yellower" seems fine. Not fond of "This is more yellow than that."

English is, however, a morphological mess so expect some exceptions. In fact, there is a general rule of thumb in linguistics that if a rule has exceptions it is a rule dealing with word structure. In general the real syntactic rules, as opposed to the ones English teachers press on students, do not have exceptions.

So, there is a rule in English that says that a noun phrase or prepositional phrase (almost the same things) containing or comprised of a "wh" form (which, what, how, when, etc.) can be "extracted" from subordinate clauses. I have put an X where the extraction site is in this sentence:
"Who did the man say (X ate the whole pie)?"
However the "extraction site" cannot occur within a clause that modifies a noun phrase (to make things simple). The following sentence is way bad.
*Who did the man (who married X) really loved Sue." Compare with
"The man (who married Sally) really loved Sue."

9:03 AM

Blogger Mark said...

Maybe I didn't pick this up but I am assuming that you are living in a country and speaking the language as a native. I feel that you truly learn how you use your own language when you choose to do so in a culture outwith your own. Even something as simple (and black and white) as "yes" and "no" in response to a seemingly direct question can be difficult to fathom - i.e. does the respondent actually agree or disagree with you. For example, linving in Thailand I may ask a local the following question "You don't play chess do you?" to which they may respond "no". As a native English speaker, I have found that I invariably misunderstand their responses and the fault is entirely down to my mal-usage of my own language. It's frightening when they can barely string a sentence together but their grammar is better than mine.

Enjoyed your posts...



1:39 PM

Blogger hh said...

The people who mind being called refugees may be hyper-sensitive. But it would be no "surprise", if they were, considering the unfamilliar events they are going through, having lost their home. It's a very emotional time and words, can be used to harm and they can triggure emotional baggage that may or may not be resolved. It's hard to resolve one's emotional conflicts when one's society is moving too fast, which it often does.

When George Bush says that they are not refugees, they are americans, he's playing on trying to fill the need to belong and be loved, with national identity. I hope he went it to, though I doubt it, a discourse on labels and names and how they can harm people.
I'm not surprised in some way that humans are calling others refugees, when they are not quite that. Just as president bush calls terrorists terrorsits when they are not just that.
But as long as we are americans.... God knows..

come see my site please...

8:50 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but I must say: Does it matter?? They lost everything and that's it, either if they're being refered as refugee or homeless or whatever does not going to change that fact.

8:28 PM

Blogger Girliedydy said...

Thanks for posting this! I felt as if I were disrespecting the Americans who had to leave parts of Louisiana because of the storm, victims or refugees. I see both of those words as negative and untrue of the circumstances. I see the meaning of those words as a person who has over come situations because they had no choice in the matter but to over come them. Now I may seem a bit rude by saying if a person lives in a place where the chances of devastation happens and decide to stay you are not a victim or refugee but instead a willing participant. Your post help give me a different view.

3:30 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting aspects about life and politics.

4:07 PM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:56 AM


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