Words matter

Pot-ay-to, pot-ah-to, tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to.” A common saying used to indicate that different words are used to refer to the same thing. Or to say: Do words really matter? Yes, they do. Words have power. The words you choose influence the listeners perspective.

Words do matter, especially when it comes to language we use on daily basis to refer to the work that we do, where we do it and the people we work with. Unfortunately, in our line of work, words that are ancient remains of colonialism never left our vocabulary. They usually mean well, but in the meantime confirm the same inequalities we aim to fight. Inspired by this article by OneWorld (Dutch only) we will try to be more sensitive to the language we use! Because words do matter.

Not as easy as it sounds… but let’s give it a try!

Giving voice to… 99.99% of the people have a voice and don’t need to be given one. It will suffice to give them a stage for their voices to be heard.

Local people or local language… I have never heard myself refer to the French as the local people of France? No, it’s the French! Like it is the Nigerians, Ugandans etc.

Minorities… because minorities are not always minorities in the global context. For example, worldwide, Muslims and people of color are majorities. What we usually mean by referring to minorities is that they are marginalized.

We no longer use the words Third World, a remainder from the Cold War, during which the United States and its allies considered themselves to be the First, the Communist bloc to be the Second and all the others the Third World. However, the terminology that replaced it, developing countries, is also problematic. Before abandoning the division in its data publications in 2016, the World Bank simply categorized countries in the bottom two-thirds of gross national income (GNI) as developing countries. But, the countries lumped together in this category differ so much from each other that the division does not really mean anything. Also, the segregation between developing and developed makes it sound like development has an end stage and that countries in the upper one-third of GNI have reached an ultimate advanced stage. We moved forward from the Millennium Development Goals: meant for developing countries in need of help by developed countries, to the Sustainable Development Goals, viewing every single country as in need of development. Similarly, we need to change the terminology of developing and developed countries. We do not really have a good alternative yet, apart from being more specific about the countries and region where we work and not lump them together.

This item is not meant to blame and shame. It’s to encourage ourselves to have a critical look at the words we use, where they come from and if they are appropriate.

Do you like linguistics? One of the exercises in our Health[e]Living course is called Words we use, promoting the use of the proper names for body parts as opposed to slang words. This month the module Healthy Body, of which this exercise is part, is accessible for free! Register here for a free account, or send an email to info@healthefoundation.eu if you have an account but cannot access the Health[e]Living course and/or Healthy Body module.