TJ is a writer living in Portland, OR.

The naming of things

I've been thinking a lot about the names of things lately, what names mean and what power they have. Three recent examples which I've come across:

  1. The latest episode of 99% Invisible about the word jaywalking, and how automotive interests in the early twentieth century used that word to win control over roads from pedestrians. 
  2. The Associated Press has decided to stop using the term 'illegal immigrant'. Illegal now only refers to actions and not people. You can read the explanation of the change on the AP website. Immigrants rights groups are praising this as a way to remove the stigma from undocumented people in the United States.
  3. With the Prop 8 case in the Supreme Court right now a lot of people are talking about the definition of marriage.

I had not really thought much about the term 'illegal immigrant' before, but I have thought a lot about the definition of marriage and how some people think that letting gay people get married will 'destroy the institution of marriage', so instead they propose 'civil unions'.

A civil union is a relationship between two consenting adults legally recognized by a government which provides rights, benefits, and responsibilities. It sounds like a marriage, but a civil union is not a marriage, even if it provides the exact same legal recognition. So what's the big deal if it's called something else?

If you give a different name to something new that is nearly the same thing as what already exists, and what exists is a societal norm, then you are making the new thing not normal. You are using language to exclude people from the larger group.

In the latter two cases we are segregating segments of the population, which appear indistinguishable to the naked eye, by how they are named (undocumented workers and people with civil unions). If the very name of a group of people (or legal arrangement between two consenting adults) implies that that thing is not a normative thing, then it can keep that group from being accepted. An extreme example of this is racial/misogynistic slurs, names which are used to completely dehumanize groups of people.

And yes, meaning changes over time, so now the word jaywalker doesn't carry any strong negative connotations. But no matter what you think about any issue, public discourse is shaped by the names of the things we talk about, and history is full of parties changing the discourse by changing the names of the things we are talking about, it's still happening today. And now I've come back to the episode of 99% Invisible, which you should definitely listen to.



Behind the Candelabra