"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


on my soapbox

Can we talk semantics?

Because there's something going on that's driving me crazy and that matters for the future. And that something is the misuse of words.

My annoyance with this particular issue is not, as you might think, due to my students, who, having experienced thirteen full years of being the Children Not Left Behind, know how to fill bubbles on multiple choice tests but can't explain what the Declaration of Independence did. I have low expectations for the little darlings, and they exceed my expectations on that count every time.

Nor is about the Olympic commentators who misused the word "temendously" to describe the diving judges' decisions.

It's not even the latest disaster on the Cake Wrecks blog, which is seriously the funniest thing on the internet.

No, it's that I'm going to scream if I hear one more news report that refers to people who left the coast because of Hurricane Ike as "refugees."


They are evacuees.

Now, I realize that perhaps I'm being a little petty here. But I work on this stuff for a living, and the term "refugee" has a very specific meaning, one that matters for international law and the protections to which an individual is entitled. Refugees are people who cross an international boundary because they have a well-founded fear (or experience) of persecution based on "race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." Generally, those fleeing violent conflict fit into this grouping as well.

People who flee their homes for similar reasons but do not cross international boundaries are called "internally displaced persons" (IDP's). IDP's often get screwed, because they don't get the very precise kinds of protections and access to humanitarian aid that refugees are supposed to receive.

People who race out of Galveston in an SUV to hole up in a hotel room in San Antonio are not refugees. Nor are those who head to shelters on busses. They are evacuees.

I'm not going to apologize for my fastidiousness about all things grammar and usage. I am the daughter of an editor and a teacher, the sister of a linguist, and will, Lord willing and the creek don't rise, be a Ph.D. in six months or so. Clearly, I come by it naturally. And goodness knows I make mistakes of this type all the time.

But I think the misuse of words by people who broadcast the news to millions of people and who therefore ought to be a little more careful is just one more symptom of the general slide of our society into casual and tacky behavior. And I'm tired of pretending it's okay. Hrrrumph.


Blogger Michael said...

Are you suggesting that perhaps the media uses a lot of terms they don't understand and that they may evaluate and analyze things that they have absolutely no business evaluating and analyzing? Surely you jest?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 7:01:00 AM

Blogger Alexis said...

I one hundred percent agree. refugees = not ok to use in this situation. I felt that way in katrina too.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 10:24:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

amen, sister.

i had half a blog post put together about this exact topic, but being a yankee carpetbagger from the east, decided i didn't have the, um, legitimacy to start such a discussion.

so as the yankee carpetbagger from the east, i say "here, here!" and "jolly good one!" and anything else that sounds elitist and aristocratic.

(sorry, after the repub convention i'm having east coast self-worth issues that i still need to work through...)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 12:20:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

No worries, Evan. I spent the entire week at APSA (in Boston, no less) telling my friends who graduated from and now teach at east coast schools that they don't understand the voting public simply by virtue of never having lived in the middle. There's plenty of geographical snobbery to go around.

I'm glad to see there's so much support for my crusade here. :)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 3:04:00 PM

Blogger Douglas said...

A valid point, or (assuming you are still on that soapbox), "Preach it, sister!" Hopefully, some editors get on board, but I won't hold my breath.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008 9:11:00 PM


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