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7 February 2011
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Sticks and stones
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Page 1 of 3
What's in a name?
Who has the power?
Taking the power back

Sticks and stones
by Dr Emma Moore, Sheffield University

What's in a name?
We all know the saying - 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me'. As kids, we're brought up to avoid calling one another names; but the truth is, we all 'call' people names all the time. Yes, even us grown-ups. And there's a simple reason for it: naming is incredibly useful.

When we label someone, we categorise them in a way which helps us to make sense of the world. To give an example, imagine that I'm describing my new workmate to my friend, and I describe her as a 'chav'. With that one word, I've managed to help my friend to picture my workmate. We both know what I mean because 'chav' is a stereotype that we both recognise. It might not be that we both picture exactly the same kind of person but, overall, we're thinking of the same personality 'type'. That's because being labelled as something is a bit like belonging to a family - not everyone in a family looks exactly the same, but overall there are shared similarities.

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So names are pretty useful things - they help us to map the world. We use them to organise similarities and contrasts. But if that's all names did, then we'd have no need for sayings like the one above. Unfortunately, names don't just organise people, they often serve to judge people too. Who ends up with a label and who doesn't can tell us a lot about the way that certain individuals are viewed - inequality or intolerance often show up in names or labels, resulting in what we might call 'language prejudice'. For instance, have you noticed how men get called 'Mr' whether they're married or not; whereas women get called 'Miss' if they're unmarried and 'Mrs' if they're married? You might think this is no big deal, but if we use names to organise our world, what does this tell us? Well, it seems to say that it's important for us to know whether a woman is married or not. Why? Is it because we judge women on whether they're married or not?

When we look a little bit closer at gender differences, we find some more interesting discrepancies. In 1992, Laurel Sutton collected the slang terms that students used to refer to people in the university where she worked. Not only were there more negative than positive terms used to refer to women, but the terms nearly always referred to body size and attractiveness. She found virtually no male terms that referred to body size and attractiveness - and the ones that did tended to be positive (e.g. 'stud'). You might want to try thinking about terms you hear used to describe appearance in Britain. Terms like 'cow', 'moose' and 'heifer' are frequently heard slang terms, but when did you last hear them used to refer to men? It's not that men don't get insulted or named, but how they do tends to differ from how women do. When we insult men, we tend to focus on their status (e.g. 'bastard') or body parts (e.g. 'prick'), rather than what they look like.

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Most of the time we don't really think about the names or labels that we use for people. But when we start to think about who gets labelled and what we label them for, we can discover something about the way our society is organised. It's not an accident that we're more likely to label women than men on the basis of their marital status and appearance. Names and labels tell us something about what the dominant beliefs are about different kinds of people. And they tell us something about the distribution of power too.


Your Comments
Do 'politically correct' labels make a difference?

Karen, Cheshire
Fascinating to see how people react to being asked to think about use of language; it generally makes people defensive, and here are some great examples. I don't know who the mythical "PC-brigade" are that apparently have incredible power over "us", depriving us of free speech and a vital language, because I've never met them; I do know, though, that a majority of people seem to believe they exist, and believe that they're making a stand against them by rubbishing what they think is political correctness and being obstinately blinkered about the ways in which assumptions are embedded in language. We have to find ways to empower people to think about language and attitude without triggering these defence mechanisms.

Ann from Fife
As a Scot, I have had members of my family described as 'Jock' and have not been offended (neither were they). We have gone too far down the PC road now where people no longer interract freely, but think through what is said , causing conversation to be stilted. It does depend very much on who is doing the calling - and with what intent. I once knew a very literate and cheerful little Chinese boy who had lived in Scotland all of his life. On being asked what his favourite food was, he replied, 'Mum cooks nice things all week, but I like Fridays because we go to the Chinkies'! He wasn't being funny. It was obviously what they said at home. (His big brother now always wears the kilt!) Great! That's what I feel is real integration. Have our own ways respected by others but keep a sense of proportion as well.

Paula, Scotland
I agree with this article. in terms of race, gender or sexuality or any other differences, I think everyone has forgotten that calling someone black is not being racist, hating someone because they are so, now that is. its is really subconsciously categorising someone for example "that girl with the blonde hair." I cant believe racism has gone so far. the only real difference being that they are better protected from the sun. and as for sticks and stones, if someone is trying to be offensive by calling a homosexual a queer, if that's the only insult they can muster by stating the truth , there not doing so well.

Kate from Chalgrove
"We all know the saying - 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me'." Yes, we do, but that doesn't mean it's true. I also think it's totally irrelevant to this article, as political correctness (or incorrectness as the case may be) such as "fireman" is rarely insulting. Personally, I found it rather nice to be seen as an "actress". This obsession with the making every word non-specific to gender is really rather ridiculous. What's more, I think that the whole idea of politically correct words is flawed. If someone wants to hurt you by calling you names, the particular name they use doesn't matter so much as the way they mean it. Also, if someone want's to hurt you using words, they aren't going to be worried about whether or not it is politically correct to do so.

Shane Devon
With the ever more available information. I think we all worry about upsetting one another, we are too sensed to others around us when it comes to "offending" them. I believe we will just reach a point where nobody will talk or look at one another just in case it is offensive. Tis a shame really considering if I use my local slang,ie, as in "vurner" (Foreigner)or grockle, it could upset somebody who isn't a "local" That is my language, so I will use it. A blackboard is a blackboard,a whiteboard a whiteboard, as is a black bin bag and red Indian.All terms are somewhat non pc and offensive to somebody, how silly it has all become. Will we ban "soccer colours and national flags next" just in case?

Dave Azincourt from London
Eddies, Pikeys, Divs, Wrinklies, Spooks . . . and many other terms of varying degrees of offensiveness as described in the original article are simply examples of stereotyping. This form of shorthand labelling, usually predujicial, is used by all races, colours and creeds and not only white heterosexual young males. The politically correct lobby has complicated matters by declaring some labels as offensive and ignoring others. Being called a geek, swot, nerd, egghead, etc can be as hurtful as any other taunts. Bob is right . . . using labels as cheap shots at people outside your immediate circle say more about the IQ of the user than the target.

Anne-Marie, Warrington
It's true that labels defining one's sexuality, ethnicity and physical abilities are there to denote those that are different from the predominant white, heterosexual able-bodied person, however, many people have taken on those labels and willingly use them as a way of introduction. For example: at a volunteer recruitment evening, we were asked to imagine we were in a darkened room and had to tell the others what we were like. Nobody said 'I am a white heterosexual person', but those who were gay, or black or Asian made a point of mentioning those aspects of themselves.

Danai from Poole
I agree with that there are too many detrimental terms for women and a lack of them for men. Women use them too. We can choose not to, and to challenge them. You will get called humourless but who cares , if that's supposed to be funny!

Bob From London
You say: "To give an example, imagine that I'm describing my new workmate to my friend, and I describe her as a 'chav'. With that one word, I've managed to help my friend to picture my workmate. We both know what I mean because 'chav' is a stereotype that we both recognise. It might not be that we both picture exactly the same kind of person but, overall, we're thinking of the same personality 'type'." I say that if you describe your new workmate as a chav then that just shows up your own prejudices and paucity of vocabulary, and I would not wish to be the "friend" you mention. Heaven knows what you mean by "friend"! This entire article is utter nonsense.

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