Saturday, September 10, 2005


The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has stirred a linguistic debate about the term "refugee" and a range of other words that have been used in the reporting of the whole catastrophe. Here's a link to The Language Legend's piece on it, while below I've cut'n'pasted a few choice quotes from an article in Michael Quinion's World Wide Words newsletter which is a weekly round-up of discussions about the world of words.

Elsewhere, in an article called When Words Break Down, Geoffrey Nunberg looks at discussion around the words and phrases "Looting", "evacuee" and "act of God".

So, to Michael Quinion's article which looks at the terms "refugee", "evacuee" and "displaced persons":

Most early news reports called them refugees ("Astrodome to become
new home for storm refugees", USA Today, 1 Sep; "Bus refugees
overcome bureaucracy", the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 2 Sep;
"The refugee emergency is beginning to affect neighboring states,
Texas most of all", New York Times, 4 Sep - just three of many
hundreds of examples). This brought an angry response on CNN from
Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick that no US
citizen could be a refugee in his own country, a view supported by
a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Elijah Cummings. It was
echoed by Bruce Gordon, the president of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People, in an interview for the
Guardian: "I think it's an offensive term. These people are fellow
Americans. Using the word refugees makes it sound like they are not
of us." The Reverend Jesse Jackson called it "racist"; he and other
African-American leaders have even argued the word has criminal
connotations. President Bush also opposed the usage: "The people
we're talking about are not refugees. They are Americans."

"Evacuee" implies an orderly and organised process. "Refugee"
implies a desperate, involuntary and unplanned move. The former
doesn't have the emotive implications or emotional force of the
latter. Whatever its dictionary sense, or the definitions of the
international aid organisations, or the plaints of politicians, or
the lexical views of dictionaries and pedants, for most people
"refugee" sums up the situation of the sufferers more accurately
than any other.

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