Friday, September 02, 2005

On Language

While reading some local coverage of what's happening in New Orleans earlier this week, I was struck by the word used to describe the displaced victims: refugees.

Up to this point, I had only heard the term used to describe those fleeing regions torn by war, not natural disaster, and so, at least in my mind, "refugees" had a certain connotation that didn't fit with how I viewed Hurricane Katrina.

It seems that other readers had similar reactions, according to Tracy Warner.

We received a couple of e-mails today criticing [sic] the newspaper for using the term "refugees" to describe people in New Orleans driven out of their homes and seeking shelter. The term, the letters said, should only be used to describe people fleeing their country.

Like Tracy, I went to the dictionary -- The New Oxford American -- and this is what I found.
a person who has been forced to leave their country* in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster
Victims of Katrina certainly fit that description, but I do think that the word does carry with it overtones of race and war, if only because it's been used so often in descriptions of the current state of things in Africa.

That having been said, I'm not sure that makes its use inappropriate here or that there is another "better" word that should be used instead. Perhaps this will connect the horror we're currently seeing on TV to what has been happening, on a daily basis, in other parts of the world for years.

In case you were wondering, the thesaurus suggests the following words as synonyms for refugee:
émigré, fugitive, exile, displaced person, asylum seeker; (refugees) boat people
Not all of them would substitute in this case.

*UPDATE: A reader points out we're all missing something, at least according to the definition I cited:
of course, it's inappropriate to use "refugee." they did not have to flee their country. they were forced to leave their state!

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