Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Changing words - the case of 'unemployed' and 'migrant'

I have been contributing to this blog for two years and I have seen countless examples of words that have changed meaning as the centuries have gone by. However, we can see word meanings changing before our eyes.

Some words come in and out of popularity. For example, ‘groovy’ originated in the 1920s from jazz culture. But by the time we got to the 1980s, 90s and noughties, ‘groovy’ had fallen out of use because it was seen as uncool. In fact, the word nearly dropped out of use altogether. It has since made a slight comeback but I suspect if you use the word among a group of teenagers you would not be met with great applause.

‘Cool’ is another word that was a popular adjective to use in the 1990s. As with ‘groovy’, ‘cool’ was popularised by jazz culture – the word originates from the early 1880s when black Americans used it to describe something that was fashionable or stylish. More recently, ‘cool’ dropped in usage but lexicographers and corpuses (catalogues that track word usage) have suggested it has had a revival with it being used slightly more now than ten years ago.

Some words have switched in meaning. ‘Sick’ and ‘wicked’ are two examples of this: both were negative in meaning and switched to being positive.

Other words and their meanings generally reflect a period in history. Watching how people use language, particularly in the media, I make a judgement that generic words risk having a newer, more negative meaning attached to them because of the tone in which the words are used.

Take the word ‘unemployed’. The main definition of ‘unemployed’ in the OED is ‘someone without a paid job but is available to work’. As we know, the word has had a huge increase in usage because of the recession and subsequent rises in people out of work. I conclude, politics aside, that the word risks having a new definition being applied to it as it edges closer to being linked with synonyms ‘idle’ and ‘useless’. There are several programmes on television which exacerbate a more negative connotation with the word because the boundary between being ‘available to work’ and being lazy or idle becomes increasingly blurred. To be called ‘unemployed’ seems to a label of shame and failure – I have been hesistant to use the word before I got offered my new job because ‘unemployed’ increasingly seems like it's used as a slur.

Other words that are becoming more negative in meaning are ‘immigrant’ and ‘migrant’. Immigration is never out of the news these days and both words risk having negative definitions being added to them. As so often is the case, a migrant is not just seen as someone who travels, which is the foremost definition of the word, but they are stigmatised and often reported negatively. This is why we must be cautious by using the same words in a consistently unforgiving tone. Only today, for instance, the autocue read 'a migrant dies trying to cross from Britain to France'. Why couldn’t ‘migrant’ be changed to ‘person’, or ‘man’? As countless Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines show, there is a certain harshness and dehumanization by using 'migrant'. It makes people think people who become migrants are all the same.


In summary, word meanings are always shifting in usage and meaning. Will these more negative definitions make it into a dictionary? Time will tell. But in my opinion, if we continue using the words I have stated in a negative way, the answer is most definitely ‘yes’. 

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