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.