The New Language Police
And what to call people who have nowhere to live. This is the first article in a four-part series.
A certain type of language policing is on the rise. It begins with a familiar word or phrase and ends with the writer, editor, consultant, or mental health expert telling us it is offensive or even dangerous.
What inspires the corrective action is not always obvious. And when an explanation is given, it may not be persuasive. When it is not given, you have the feeling that you missed a meeting and everyone knows something you don’t. You can ask around, or google “What’s wrong with X?” Probably it’s a good idea, you think, to avoid the topic until you’re caught up with the new way of talking about it.
Also there is the question of volume: With so many linguistic objections going round, a broader impulse seems to be involved. The why of language policing, then, may involve more than one answer.
The good-intentions industry does seem especially busy these days, there being so much that is wrong with the world, a point on which everyone agrees while thinking to themselves of different wrongs. But, in the end, “so much wrong in the world” is just too broad an answer to any single “what’s wrong with X?”
Always, the specific point about a specific word or phrase may be worth thinking about, just as you might think about your neighbor’s unsolicited opinion on taxes or the environment or the correct way to trim your hedges. After all, your neighbor may be right. Yet it’s also worth considering how these public service announcements on language reflect a changing attitude among educated Americans toward the competence of native English speakers to manage their own meanings. It’s like they don’t trust you to open your mouth and not hurt someone.
Sometimes the intervention is a simple nudge. I edit magazine articles for a living and, not long ago, a reader sent me an email gently complaining that a caption beneath a photo of a homeless person in a library was not as considerate as it ought to be because of the way I had identified the person as “homeless” and then given their name. The reader was an advocate for what’s called “person first” language. She suggested I change the wording online by putting the person’s name first and their homeless state second. This I did not do because, in my opinion, there was nothing to correct.
I had written the sentence that way intentionally, foregrounding the person’s homeless state because that was the most relevant part. The article was about libraries and some of the extraordinary challenges they face, including patrons who are homeless and come to the library for shelter and internet access. Had the article been about homeless people looking for shelter in libraries (a subtle but important difference), I probably would have written the sentence in exactly the manner the letter-writer thought I should have, but it wasn’t so I didn’t.
In any case, I need a solid reason to re-edit a piece that is already published. And, to me, the idea that the order of these two simple phrases amounted to either a show of respect for the homeless person’s dignity or a slight against the man, even a very minor one, was not a solid reason. In fact, I thought it a little absurd.
Even as I say this I can think of another objection that has been raised to how I wrote that caption. Specifically, I used the word “homeless,” which I notice some writers and editors of liberal stripe avoiding in favor of “unhoused” and “houseless,” which are semantically so similar to “homeless” as to make the discrimination, on its face, rather curious.
Here is an explanation (high up in my google search) from unhoused.org, a “social impact startup” in the United Kingdom, on why you should say “unhoused” instead of “homeless:”
The label of of ‘homeless’ has derogatory connotations. It implies that one is ‘less than,’ and it undermines self-esteem and progressive change. The use of the term ‘Unhoused,’ instead, has a profound personal impact upon those in insecure housing situations.
But it’s not even clear that this point is taken seriously at unhoused.org. The startup runs a clothing business wherein every purchase results in a donation to what they tell you to call an “unhoused” person. But the clothing business itself is billed as “the U.K.’s first online shop for the homeless.” Yes, the homeless.
More seriously, the Associated Press updated its style manual in 2020 to say
homeless is generally acceptable as an adjective to describe people without a fixed residence. Avoid the dehumanizing collective noun the homeless, instead using constructions like homeless people, people without housing or people without homes.
This distinction between trouble words as adjectives versus nouns is more regulatory than logical. One thinks of the Sisyphean effort to avoid the word “slave” through the substitution of “enslaved person,” while “slave”remains all but unavoidable in slave trade, slave ship, slave owner, and, of course, slavery. Sure, one can pull out grammatical categories and wear them like rubber gloves when forced to discuss a morally fraught topic, but it requires a bit of magical thinking to believe that “homeless people” is inoffensive but “the homeless” is dehumanizing.
If so, then many other nouns may have to be cross-examined for what damage they may be causing. Personally, I am wondering if lawyers, a plural noun often voiced with dehumanizing intent, is next in line for protection from the dangers of everyday usage.
Historically speaking, the word “homeless” is quite respectable. It became the preferred term in the United States as the rights of homeless people were being affirmed. The landmark lawsuit Callahan v. Carey forced the city of New York to provide shelter for homeless men in 1979.
That year, one can see the tides shifting among words used to describe people who have no place to live. In the New York Times, a writer who lived near a bus station commented on the lack of a consensus for what to call the people he sometimes found on his doorstep.
Transients are what the police call them; most of the neighbors just call them bums, and the Shelleys across the street call them poor souls. Whatever they are named, we see them frequently—hunched, unshaven men holding onto suspicious swollen paper bags.
Other commonly used terms at the time included “derelicts” and “vagrants,” as well as “destitute” and “homeless” as adjectives. With activism and consciousness-raising—in 1979, the Coalition for the Homeless was founded—homeless as an adjective and the homeless as a group became the preferred nomenclature, which is to say, the polite nomenclature.
So we can say that “homeless” has a pedigree more than four decades old. And it is already rich with historical associations of social justice, if that’s what you are shopping for.
For these reasons, I think the substitution of “unhoused” for “homeless” is in danger of failing the reasonable nonaligned bystander test, which can be stated thus: Do you possibly sound to a person of a different point of view like someone in the grip of an irrational idea about the power of trivial word substitutions?
In a couple years, perhaps “unhoused” will be so commonly used that I will conveniently forget that I ever questioned it. Maybe even deny that I ever used a word so obviously derogatory as “homeless,” but probably not. It will simply be the case that a large number of people stopped using “homeless” as the preferred though possibly contested adjective and noun of choice for someone who lacks an indoor residence and lives on the street, a reality that seems far more stark than the pretty difference between two words that name such a condition.
People have strong feelings about their own usages and other people’s as well. In the case of their own words, I can hardly blame them. I too am word proud. Like a lot of educated people, I am vain about my own usage and word choice, though, honestly, I have made enough bad choices in my time that I probably shouldn’t be.
This kind of amour propre about one’s words is a tricky thing to keep in mind. I might smirk at your use of “unhoused” in place of “homeless,” but I should obviously reserve final judgment for the totality of what you say. More, it is the height of editorial hubris to insist on there being only one way to say or write a given sentiment or thought or fact. Usually, there are several ways that are equally good or almost as good. Occasionally, a best way shines luminously over all others, the search for which inspires more poetry than prose.
David Skinner is an editor and a writer. He is author of The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (2012) and many essays on literary culture and history.
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