Traveling recently in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, I visited many places that told the story of slavery in the South. From the start, I noticed that presenters used the phrase enslaved people or enslaved person rather than slaves or slave.
The first time I heard enslaved people at the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, I asked the guide about her choice of words. She explained that the noun slaves defined people too narrowly. They were much more than slaves. They were people who were enslaved.
Then at the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters in Savannah, Georgia, this portion of a sign explained that concept.
In other words, the noun slave limits our thinking. It gives no hint that the enslaved person might have been a mother, daughter, sister, wife, dressmaker, cook, caregiver, gardener, healer, etc., as well as a thinking, feeling human being.
We still have words that define people narrowly. They cause us to focus on a specific, negative condition of a person’s life rather than reflect on the breadth of it.
Do you use any of these nouns in your writing?
Homeless–When used as a noun (the homeless), this word narrows our thinking, like slaves. In contrast, the expression “people experiencing homelessness” (like “people who were enslaved”) allows our thoughts to broaden. It suggests that the individuals are more than their current social condition. They have lived in homes, gone to school, had people who loved them (and love them still), held jobs (and may hold them now), and had full, varied lives. They are not simply the category homeless.
Addicts–This noun limits our vision and our understanding of people who suffer from addiction. Indeed, addiction takes over people’s lives, but writers should not let the word addict define the individual. More useful expressions are “a person suffering from addiction,” “a person experiencing an alcohol/drug problem,” or “a person with a substance use disorder.” The Associated Press Stylebook 2019 (AP) recommends avoiding the words alcoholic, addict, user, abuser, junkie, and drunk because they label the person rather than the disease.
Illegals–This hot-button noun is sometimes used to label people who are in the United States illegally. Like slaves, homeless, and addicts, it limits the readers’ perceptions of a huge range of individuals–in this case, individuals who are in the country illegally for many different reasons. AP recommends:
Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.
Diabetics, insomniacs, paraplegics–Like the other nouns, these words limit people using one challenging condition that they live with.
These examples are slightly different, but they appear in business writing and communicate narrowly and negatively:
Subordinate–Some people use this noun to name people who report to them. Yet the word suggests “less than.” The adjective subordinate has synonyms such as lesser, minor, inferior, lower, and subservient. Better expressions than subordinate are employee, team member, staff member, staff, and direct report–none of which suggest subservience.
Loser–Like subordinate, loser stresses the “less than” status. Yet people who lose are often highly skilled, trained, and committed–winners by most measures. Better words are runner-up and competitor.
In your writing, have you recognized limiting words and discovered ways to avoid them? Have you found alternatives that suggest the rich complexity of life rather than constraining our thoughts and ideas? I’d love to hear from you.
But before you fault me for political correctness, please consider the title of this post: “Language That Enslaves Our Thinking.” Let’s not allow our language to restrict our ways of thinking about slavery, homelessness, addiction, immigration, and other challenging subjects. My goal is not to be politically correct. It’s to think and communicate with my eyes fully open.
Thank you to the many people of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia who made my vacation a rich experience!