Jul 11, 2018

Geoff Nunberg on ‘People First’ Language and North Carolina Law

From the North Carolina Health News

Putting ‘People First’ into Law

By Rose Hoban

Some of the decades-old language in North Carolina’s state laws sound more like insults from a schoolyard bully rather than precise descriptions of medical conditions. But thanks to the painstaking work of a state commission, at least some of that terminology will change come October.

For example, right now, North Carolina guardianship laws refer to people who are “mentally retarded.” Other statutes still refer to people being “lunatic.”

“Words have meaning, words have power,” said Sen. Tamara Barringer, one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 768 at a meeting of the Senate Rules committee June 6. “We’ve only begun to eliminate words like retarded and lunacy and other archaic and offensive language that needs to come out of our statute.”...

But changing hearts may be harder than just changing words said noted linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who teaches at the UC Berkeley School of Information. Terms describing people with intellectual problems have long been words used to demean, he said, and people start on the schoolyard.

“Look, what’s the first swear word that kids learn? It’s ‘stupid,’” he said. “It’s the first word that parents tell kids not to say, ‘We don’t call people stupid,’ and only afterward do you learn all the ethnic insults.”

Nunberg posited that this is in part because society is structured to reward intelligence and achievement and to punish its absence.

“Low intelligence is regarded by a lot of people as stigmatized, less desirable,” he said.

While Nunberg lauded the effort to replace statutory terms, he also struck a cautionary tone about how long the new terms might be usable, because language evolves to catch up with persistent stigma, something he referred to as a “euphemism treadmill.”

“The words are introduced, particularly in modern times, as a clinical definition and soon enough the clinical word becomes the common name of the category and is … tainted with all the prejudices and stereotypes of the persons associated with the category,” he said.


Last updated:

July 12, 2018