“Look at his shirt!” I said to my wife, aghast, as we watched two extremely fit young men trade volleys at the U.S. Open. Square neck, with a bib effect that made Karen Khachanov seem like he was wearing a barista apron.
“Take it up with Nike,” she replied, dismissively.
Translation: Change happens, deal with it.
As if the reality that “the goat” Charlie Brown was, for baseball ineptitude, has completely morphed into “the GOAT” that Serena Williams is, the Greatest Of All Time, were not strain enough, now comes another linguistic shift, courtesy of my friends at the Night Ministry.
”Revised Mission Statement Recognizes Primacy of Human Connection and Dignity of Clients” reads the headline across that organization’s Fall 2022 Nightlights newsletter.
“The Night Ministry’s previous mission statement referred to those we serve as ‘experiencing homelessness’” it explains. “The word ‘homeless’ has been deliberately replaced with ‘unhoused,’ as the former often has derogatory connotations.”
The problem with designating new words to describe negative conditions is that, no matter how carefully chosen, they quickly become negative words themselves, sometimes insults. Changing conditions is hard, often impossible, so we change the words describing them instead. Go for the low-hanging fruit.
The idea, I believe, is that changing language helps change conditions. Maybe so. Though this also leads to something I call “euphemism creep” where any word attached with certain populations assumes the difficulties of the groups described, and becomes pejorative. “Special needs” was supposed to replace developmentally disabled, but soon kids were taunting each other as “special.”
The tendency has been to stop labeling people under all-encompassing terms. Thus you’re not blind, but a person with visual challenges. Focus on the human, not the difficulty.
That’s why “slave” has been shown the gate. The word fell from favor to describe the condition afflicting many Black Americans before 1865 because it was based on the perspective of white society, which viewed them as chattel, period. When in reality they possessed all the qualities other people have. So instead of “her grandmother was born a slave,” I write, “her grandmother was born in slavery,” which isn’t a loss in style or comprehension and leaves the door open to her grandmother’s many fine qualities.
But banishing negativity can blur the experience being described. Get vague enough and the reader won’t know what you’re talking about. I once wrote a long piece on what it’s like to be disfigured, talking to people with no noses, burned faces, or features distorted through neurofibromatosis.
Mosaic, the London medical website publishing the article, was uncomfortable with the word “disfigured.” They wanted such people called “different.”
In the story, I ask a man who set himself on fire what was his first thought after the flames were extinguished. He replied, “Oh man, I’m going to be ugly.” Mosaic wanted to change that to “different.” I pointed out that, a) you can’t change quotes and b) that man had earned the right to categorize his own face however he liked.
To me, “homeless” has dug such a trough in our culture, trying to substitute “unhoused” won’t fly, either rejected by the public, or merely starting the process over again. “I can’t walk a block from Union Station without half a dozen aggressive Unhoused hitting me up for money ... ”
That’s the beauty of writing for a well-established publication like the Sun-Times. It has its own style guide. I never have to agonize over whether to quote someone using what I must call “the N-word.” There’s no other option.
I don’t like it, but don’t have to. It’s not my call. For instance, when discussing race, we capitalize Black but lowercase white. When the change occurred, I registered my disagreement. It’s not parallel, it could be seen as condescending to Black people and a dig at white people. Then I fell in line, because here I don’t make the rules, I follow them.
Besides the need to navigate the confusing and contradictory maze of language, another challenge to being a writer is the periodic creation of books, which must then be ballyhooed. My new book, “Every Goddamn Day,” is being published next month by the University of Chicago Press. In an attempt to draw attention to it, I will have a lively conversation with TikTok Chicago historian Shermann Dilla Thomas on the Plymouth Court Stage at the Printers Row Lit Fest this Sunday at 2 p.m.