Sticks and stones…

Published 13 June 2012 / By Rob McNeil

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There is an old playground rhyme that tends to be trotted out by children on the receiving end of an insult: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

It’s a reassuring mantra for kids who want to respond to a bully, but the problem is, it’s not really true. Words are weapons and they always have been. While the physical act of saying something doesn’t deliver physical harm, it can - and does – stimulate actions that do.

I was pondering this recently after one of my colleagues told me about a debate I had missed during a recent COMPAS seminar, where the speaker had described western residents in an Asian country as ‘ex-pats’.

Some COMPAS staff suggested that the term was, in essence, a euphemism. The term ex-pat, it was argued, is conferred on people from wealthy countries when they move to another nation, but not on people from poor countries – these people are ‘migrants’.

To me, as a former journalist, the term expatriate, or ex-pat, is pretty innocuous and is something that I would use without really thinking – and therein lies a problem: all terms may seem equal, but they are not. The word ‘ex-pat’ has connotations of glamour or success, while the word ‘migrant’ tends to invoke hardship and poverty.

I did a quick, and very unscientific, check on Google News, to see what sort of different stories were pulled up by the search term ‘ex-pat’ or ‘expatriate’ and then what sort of stories were pulled up by the term ‘migrant’. The difference is pretty stark – you can look at the results here:

While it is not completely black and white, the overall theme seems to be that expats are go-getters, wealthy, the kind of people who do business and live in exciting places, while migrants are poor people, generally unwanted, living in camps or suffering as they travel from one country to another in the hope of a better life.

Understanding why certain words that, superficially at least, mean the same thing can be so heavily loaded with implicit meanings is challenging. I have discussed with some colleagues whether the very sound of the word ‘migrant’ might have something to do with it – I suggested that it sounds rather guttural and insulting, contains sounds that appear in obscene words and (in my opinion, anyway) is not pleasing to the ear.  One colleague disagreed and the other was not sure. One alternative view, of course, is that the negative loading of the word in the press has led me to feel that it sounds ugly rather than the other way around.

But whatever the reason, it seems possible that seemingly neutral words have hidden meanings that create implicit narratives and deliver subtle but profound changes to people’s emotional responses to news stories that – on the surface of things – might seem to say the same thing.

So what can we do about the fact that the very words that define migrants, may also be used in some way pejoratively? Perhaps a start is to simply be aware of it and to take notice of how different descriptions of types of migrants may be loaded with meaning, despite being “correct.”

It is, of course, silly to suggest that the debate on migration in the UK might really be different if all ‘migrants’ were referred to in the media as ‘ex-pats’ from specific countries, as there is simply no way of knowing. Also, the British media isn’t going to change the words it uses very quickly, and any efforts to push it to do so are likely to result in accusations of “political correctness gone mad” but it’s hard to imagine that the words used to describe migrants have no impact on our understanding of them and feelings toward them.