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  • Writer's pictureElzbieta M Gozdziak

What's in a word?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet," said Juliet to Romeo. As Juliet finds out, words and names do matter. In fact, they matter a lot because they influence our thinking.

Glossary of migration terms

Recently, my colleagues at the Center for Migration Studies (CeBaM) in Poznań, Poland prepared a mini-dictionary (see picture) suggesting the best words and terms to use when discussing the plight of Ukrainians seeking refuge in Poland and elsewhere in the world. The graphic is accompanied by a commentary explaining the meaning and use of the proposed vocabulary.

The intention of the glossary was to rehumanize those fleeing violence, adequately and straightforwardly describe the events in Ukraine, and avoid euphemisms.

Reactions to the glossary

We posted the glossary and the commentary on the CeBaM's Facebook page.

The post reached a wide audience of some 2,500 people, including 550 direct engagements. This was possibly a post that received the highest number of comments. There were very many people who liked the glossary and thought it was worthwhile disseminating it widely, but there were also many people--mainly men, come to think of it--who called the glossary an attempt to "invent politically correct language." (The phrase 'political correctness' was used as an invective meant to insult the authors and the Center's faculty.)

Some people took issue with the proposed grammatical change to use the preposition w/in (Ukraine) as opposed to na/on (Ukraine). It is true that traditionally Poles used the phrase 'na Ukrainie' (on Ukrainie) to indicate that they are going to Ukrainie; the same preposition on is used to describe going to Hungary (na Wegry) or to Lithuania (na Litwe), for example. Recently, however, many people started using the preposition 'w' (in) to emphasize the subjectivity and political independence of the Ukrainian state. Those commentators who were negatively disposed towards this change accused the authors of Russification of the Polish language. They conveniently forgot that Ukrainians prefer 'in Ukraine' to distinguish the phrase from the Russian на Украине (na Ukrainie).

Those who did not read the commentary carefully (or perhaps skipped it altogether) were under the impression that we proposed to abandon the word 'migrant' and replace it with 'refugee.' At least one commentator facetiously suggested that CeBaM should change their name to Center for Refugee Studies since "'migrant' is a forbidden word.' We suggest that the term 'migrant' should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor. Ukrainians have not freely chosen to leave their homeland for convenience...

A number of readers thought the glossary was an attempt to brainwash people. One reader compared the proposed vocabulary to 'newspeak' from Orwell's 1984! A few readers took issue with specific terms such as integration and suggested that 'assimilation' is more appropriate as Ukrainians are guests in Poland and should learn local language and customs and become 'like us.'

The importance of language

While a picture might be worth a thousand words, words are important! As researchers, writers, and activists we choose words carefully. Politically correct language is not an attempt to brainwash anybody. Rather, it is based on the idea that words shape our reality and so the philosophy of language behind it gives weight to words. In recent years, society has been moving towards non-discriminatory language that respects every single human being.

In migration studies, we have long fought terms such as 'illegal migrant.' PICUM, for example, has established an initiative "Words Matter" to raise awareness of the impact of discriminatory language and promote accurate language in reference to undocumented migrants.

Mike Viderer wrote an excellent essay entitled An Alternative Vocabulary for Reporting on Migration Issues: On Politics, Ethics, and the News Media’s Contested Migration Terminology to discuss how news coverage of migration issues significantly impacts public attitudes towards migrating people in Western societies. My colleagues and I contested the term 'refugee crisis' which overwhelmed the debates about asylum seekers arriving in Europe in the summer of 215. A study by the Migration Observatory at Oxford University analysed 58,000 UK newspaper articles and found that illegal was the most common descriptor for the word immigrants.

These are but few examples of efforts that negate the attempts to discredit debates about language and its impact on attitudes towards refugees and migrants, asylum and immigration policies, and integration processes. We have come a long way, but we still have ways to go....

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