Wednesday, November 02, 2011

WNW: Changing Names Doesn't Change Attitude

I've talked many times about how English (and all languages) evolve. Today's Word Nerd Wednesday is taking a slightly different angle.

Many people believe that language is power, that by changing how we refer to something, we'll change attitudes. That's just not true at all.

An easy example is the word toilet.

The word used to mean the place where a person (usually a woman) would primp: do her hair, spritz perfume, add her jewelry.

But when we got indoor plumbing, people wanted to refer to our, well, business in a manner what would sound nice. So they called the place where we do something entirely different than primp by the same name, the toilet.

Instead of thinking about bodily functions in a pretty, primping sort of way, the new word, toilet, took on the connotations of what we do there. (In other words, it adopted the ick factor.)

Dang. Toilet didn't work. We needed a new term. How about bathroom?

Well, sure, we bathe there, too, but we all know what it really means. That term took on the connotation toilet already had.

Trying again. What about restroom?

Okay, first off, no one rests there, and we all know it. The term is a somewhat a more formal version of bathroom, but it certainly has the same general connotations as toilet. Same with water closet, powder room, and any other term you come up with.

You can change the term all you want, but until we as human beings stop thinking of that particular behavior as anything but a bit gross, any name we give it will take on that same meaning.

A similar thing happened with language during the Civil Rights era. Black had a negative connotation, probably thanks to the bigotry of the day. So activists started using the word colored.

The problem: a change in term didn't change anyone's existing prejudice.

Later we went on to African-American, back to black, possibly back to colored at some point, and today I'm not sure what the politically correct term is.

But the point: anyone who was already prejudiced didn't change their mind based on whatever black people were called. Bigots needed to learn about black people and clue in from experience and education that they're deserving of respect just like anyone else. That doesn't happen from a change in name.

I've watched the same thing happen with handicapped people. Activists seem to hate the term handicapped, or at least the baggage associated with it.

Their predictable response: Let's change the term and thereby change people's attitudes!

You can already predict what's happened, right? We've ended up with things like differently abled and handi-capable. But have any of us changed our attitudes based solely on those terms? I doubt it. If we've changed, it's because of other types of social education, like being exposed to people who use wheelchairs and learning that they're people with hopes, dreams, and feelings (and intelligence!) just like the rest of us.

Chances are, the name didn't do a dang thing. Worse, the new terms are taking on the baggage that handicapped always brought with it.

I believe that the way to create social change is not to change a name or a term. All that does is carry people's baggage from the old term to the new one.

Instead, progress can be made far more quickly by focusing efforts on education and exposure, and possibly even by embracing the name. An example from the past is the way Mormons embraced that nickname, which started out as derogatory. They called themselves Mormons and showed people what that meant . . . through educating them.

Fighting a name is a waste of everyone's energy.


Eileen Davis said...

I love this post. We had this discussion when I was at BYU six years ago (I'm young). Lately, I've been trying to think what the current word for handicapped is. I don't know which word to use, but some people take offense at any term. People's perspective needs to change, like you say.

Jordan McCollum said...

That's exactly why I didn't understand what seemed to be an anti-the-word-"Mormon" push. I might have been mistaken, as we're clearly back to using the term without reservation (but with clarification).

I'm trying to remember exactly what word it was, but I think it was toilet, actually... Yes, I'm pretty sure it was, after a quick etymology check. In French, it was a diminutive of the word for cloth, which metonymically became associated with the cloth used while primping which we picked up in English and it kind of moved all around the bathroom via metonymy.

Interestingly (or not; I can't tell the difference when it comes to this stuff, LOL), this commode-deletion is most prevalent in the US. In Britain, it's a toilet. (Okay, or a water closet--but there's nothing offensive in the word "toilet.")

We are such pussyfooters.

Jennie said...

You covered it very well. No matter whether we use handicapped, physically challenged, mentally challenged, or whatever, the terms soon mean the same thing. All of this emphasis on politicaly correct terminology is kind of silly and accomplishes nothing. Time, place, and popular usage define language. Attitude is changed by education and familiarity.

LisAway said...

This reminds me of the Anne quote about a rose by any other name. I enjoyed her reflections on that (thought I can't quite remember what other word used as an example of a name that would be less sweet. Some kind of thistle? Shoot, help me out here...) (also, I know she was making a different point than you're making in this post, but whatever.)

I get what you're saying and I agree, although I think bathroom/restroom/powder room all are a lot more pleasant than toilet, a term used (toaleta), as well as WC (not water closet, but voo-tse, the actual letters) for public bathroom. It took me a long time to get used to people in Poland saying they needed to go to the toilet. Ick.

And I think politically correct terms are just plain dumb. Trying to find a gentler way of saying something that really shouldn't have a negative feel in the first place is pointless.

Susan Anderson said...

Good points, all.

And interesting ones!


amberargyle said...

Totally agree. It reminds me of the pastor that called every religion besides Catholics and Baptists cults.

Then he'd try to explain how he used the word differently than the normal connotation.

Doesn't work that way buddy.

Eileen Davis said...


Anne used the word skunk cabbage, I think.


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