The semantics of respect – words can hurt you

I’m fairly certain that the other members of my family probably think I”m some kind of ‘PC thug.’ I’m seemingly forever picking them up on what I consider inappropriate language. Just recently I had a lengthy conversation with my brother about why the term ‘Siamese twins’ was somewhat problematic. I know for a fact that some of my family members think my concern with semantics is completely nonsensical and if their intent was not prejudice or discrimination then why should they worry about whatever words are acceptable at the moment?

The issue of semantics and respect is a very complex one. In this post I will attempt to make sense of some of the issues and present a case for respectful and responsive use of language.

I should start by saying that I am very keen to respect others from all backgrounds and communities. If I were to be seen as prejudiced or discriminatory, I would feel terrible. Respect is probably the top of my list in the elements of  communication and interaction with others. The key issue in what words are OK to describe a particular community seem to me to be whether or not that community has adopted the language themselves. This is a fairly good indication that if people from the relevant  community use a word then it is OK to use. As an example, many people on the Autism spectrum use ‘I am Autistic’. However, it is also important to be aware of personal preference. Some people like one description and other prefer another. I’ll stick with the Autism example here. I am happy to be described as ‘autistic’ but others would prefer ‘person who has autism’.  If in doubt, most people probably won’t mind if you ask what their preference for a description is.

In the mental illness and disability worlds many people don;t like to be described using language that puts their health condition first or that takes away their power and agency and suggests they are some kind of victim (think ‘person who uses a wheelchair’ as opposed to ‘wheelchair bound’). In addition, some terms for mental illness conditions are misused to the irritation and detriment of people who experience the condition. Think of the term ‘psychotic.’ This is used throughout society to describe some one who is violent or evil while in fact psychosis is a set of symptoms that mean someone loses touch with reality. It has nothing to do with violence or evil and in fact, met people experiencing psychosis are terrified and far more likely to commit violence against themselves than anyone else. For people who experience psychosis – and I can say this from personal experience – this misinterpretation of the condition is very disempowering and results in me having to explain to half the world what the correct meaning of the term psychosis is.  Another misused word from the mental illness world is ‘manic’. Parents will say their children are manic, but unless the children are in an elevated state of mood, stay awake for days or weeks on end and/or have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, it is unlikely that they are manic at all, they probably just had too much sugar.

Essentially using the accepted and respectful term for such things is not about wrecking free speech or being a PC thug (whatever that is), but rather it is about showing respect to people who may face discrimination in the world due to their membership of a particular group (or ‘club’ as I like to think of it). I often say to people that if they met an African person they portably wouldn’t use an offensive racist slur to describe them, so why is it such an issue for people from other groups. It really doesn’t take long to ask how someone likes to be referred to or learn about different communities.

The funny thing about certain people’s reaction to my concern with respectful language is that I’m sure they don’t think  that they are being disrespectful. One person who I won’t name insists on using the ‘R’ word as a description for people with intellectual disability. When I take this person to task they fail to see the issue. For me, using respectful language is an important part of communicating well with people from different backgrounds and communities. Although I sometimes feel like I am fighting an uphill battle, I will continue to do my best to fly the flag for respectful language.


My cat, Mfr Ronnie always uses respectful language – ‘purr’ is welcomed by almost everyone

2 thoughts on “The semantics of respect – words can hurt you

  1. An interesting article which is general in nature, I believe that this is good as it applies to most situations. Thanks for sharing Jeanette!


  2. Ahhh, the semantics issue. It is the most universally agreed part of me people have a problem with. I learned to ‘let it go’. But I also let go of a piece of me by doing so. I’m not sure if it was a wise move or not.

    After reading this, I realise I need to think a little more about my place in all this too, and how my people pleasing decisions affect me.

    Liked by 1 person

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