Changing Words and Worlds

Changing Words and Worlds

Have you ever accidentally used a term which isn’t politically correct?

Don’t feel too bad about it. It can be hard to avoid. Especially when something that was politically correct last week is unacceptable this week.

Attitudes shift. Terms shift.

Red Indians became American Indians, then became Native Americans. Black became coloured, which became negro, which then changed back to Black again.

Does it really make any difference what word we use to describe something or someone? Or is it just a load of ‘woke’ fuss?

Anyone who has been on business or management courses will know about the transmogrification of the term ‘problem’. Workplaces used to encounter problems – things that had gone wrong. Then along came business psychology and problem was labelled too negative a term. Problems became ‘issues’ instead; things that needed addressing but without the negative connotations of problems. Sometime later, issue fell out of favour too, and ‘challenge’ was adopted. Challenges are perceived as something more positive for many people; a chance to get creative. The last I heard, challenge had been replaced with ‘opportunity’ – surely the ultimate positive, but you never know.

You might be laughing at this. After all, if the ceiling has fallen down or you’ve somehow sold 200 more tickets than you had seats, how does the word you use to describe the situation help? But there is some real understanding of human psychology behind it. Different words trigger different emotions. If someone phones you up and says, ‘We have a problem’, you’re likely to get a sick feeling, a tightening in the chest, if not full-blown panic. Problem equates in our minds with a bad state of affairs. An issue, however, implies those inevitable little hiccups that need sorting out but aren’t really bad. Challenges, for their part, elicit competitive or creative thinking and a determination to succeed. Opportunity triggers feelings of excitement and positivity. The difference is real. And the emotion you bring up in your workforce is going to affect their ability and motivation to deal with a tricky situation. Panic isn’t likely to be helpful. Creating thinking is. And you can control which you’ll get by choosing the right terms.   

Some of the emotions evoked by specific terms – positive or negative – are socially constructed. Going back to an earlier example, negro is simply the Spanish and Portuguese word for black. But because of the attitudes of the people using the term, it became offensive. Another example is the word Yid, defined by Oxford Languages online as an offensive term for Jews – despite it being the word many Jews use to describe themselves – because it has been adopted by some people as a racial slur.

Attitudes can become attached to certain words and some words carry bigger emotional triggers than others. ‘Abortion’ is much more emotive than ‘termination of pregnancy’. Some words or phrases make actions more socially acceptable. Consider how frequently you hear someone describing how they ‘made a mistake and paid the price’ when they committed a crime and were sent to prison. There’s a good reason for choosing that description. Making a mistake is much more relatable and socially acceptable than breaking the law and doing something criminal. You are much more likely to get a sympathetic reaction if you ‘made a mistake’.

So much difference can it make that Alfie Moore in the BBC’s ‘It’s a Fair Cop’ specifically asks people not to use the term ‘flasher’ because it trivialises what they’re doing. Referring to the person as ‘a perpetrator of sexual abuse’ highlights that this is a serious crime.

So, yes, it really can make a difference. It’s true that some terms will keep changing as the new ones become imbued with the old negative connotations. It’s also true that attitudes need to be challenged as well. Simply changing the accepted word used to describe something isn’t enough. But there is significant reason to support the principle. Language is a powerful tool. And changing words can contribute to changing worlds.

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