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Words. If we only understood them

In Europe there is a debate going on in addition to the one over immigrants. This debate is over what to CALL the immigrants – “migrants” or “refugees.”

There is a difference. Refugees are people fleeing from other people. Migrants are people traveling somewhere for reasons of their own. “The key difference is that if migrants chose to return home, they would likely continue to receive the protection of their government – unlike refugees,” reports NBC News.

Why does it matter what they’re called outside of their home country? Because, according to United Nations official Adrian Edwards in Geneva, “Conflating refugees and migrants can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees.”

Words have power. Words, in this situation, can kill. In other situations, they can cause change or pain or heal. Words are one of the principal tools of bullies and of leaders. More to the point, they affect us all in our daily lives.

At the Nevada Legislature, I have frequently seen lawmakers debating words. This year, they approved a bill changing the name of the State Library and Archives to the State Library, Archives and Public Records. Given the fact that the Archives have been handling public records for decades without needing it spelled out in the name, I keep wondering why it was necessary to go to the considerable expense of changing the statute.

For most of state history, Nevadans could use any name they wanted without going to court so long as they did not do so for purposes of fraud. Then a few decades ago, the legislators made a special law for divorced women. In order to have their maiden names restored, they had to petition the court for permission. I spoke once to a deputy attorney general who was present when the legislative committee approved this change. It came out of nowhere, he said, and was added to the bill without explanation.

Of course, those are cases of names, not merely words. The legislators also deal with words. At one Legislature in the 1970s, legislators changed the term “rape” in the statutes to “sexual assault.” The purpose was to reduce the stigma for the victim, a laudable purpose. Of course, it also reduced the stigma for the perpetrator.

Lobbyists for state employees have succeeded in getting the term for prison guards changed to corrections officers, which served some purpose but also helped obscure the danger they face on the job. Instead, their new name sounds like they process parole applications.

Those kinds of unintended consequences are common. Words have a way of finding their own way. One of my favorite quotes is “Be kind. Nearly everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I first heard it attributed to someone named T.H. Thompson. When the internet came along, I tried to find out more about its origin and discovered it had actually been written by Ian Maclaran and it was originally worded by him this way: “Be pitiful, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” It meant the same thing, for when it was written “pitiful” MEANT “kind.” But over time, the meaning of pitiful changed and so someone somewhere along the way changed the wording of the quote to keep its original meaning.

Poet Sanober Khan has written of words, “they burn. they cleanse. they erase. they etch. they can either leave you feeling homeless or brimming with home.”

Nearly all of us have been moved by words spoken by leaders, and nearly all of us have been misled by words spoken by leaders. It’s one more reason we should treat them as powerful drugs and be careful before taking them.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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