Monthly Archives: November 2015

Absence of naming choices?

In this blog post, I wanted to address the issue of absence of naming choices, and in many ways this post is a both a follow up and a precursor for the recent piece I wrote for the Conversation on the naming choices which are available for describing people who move (or are moved) from one place to another. As a linguist, something which I find interesting is the way that people explain why they use certain choices. In some cases, they are overt about choosing names which reflect a particular evaluation, as is the case in the recent al Jazeera decision not to use migrant when refugee is appropriate. And, as is equally the case in the offensive and hate-filled alternatives to migrant which were offered below the line on that article.

In other cases, people claim neutrality for the word that they use, as happens in the ‘but it’s the dictionary meaning’ explanations, which fail to take into account how dictionaries change as usage and evaluative meanings change.

And in other cases, people explain the choice of term as simply being the common sense one, using the ‘we call them x because they are x’ explanation. For instance, in an article responding to the debate raised by the al Jazeera decision, a Guardian article ran with the headline We deride them as ‘migrants’. Why not call them people? and, as might be expected, it received below-the-line responses along the lines of ‘They get called ‘migrants’ because they are migrants’.

So, if this logic holds, we should expect similar patterns of naming across similar events, after all, the argument goes, it’s not a value judgement. To investigate this quite quickly, I downloaded all the articles which referred to ship, ships, boat, boats from all the UK national newspapers published over two date ranges:

1) April 19-20 2015, the period in which a ship capsized in the Mediterranean killing over 700 people (c.50 articles relating to this disaster after duplicates were removed)

2) January 14-15 2012, the period in which a ship capsized in the Mediterranean killing over30 people (c.80 articles relating to this disaster after duplicates were removed)

Where these two incidents differ is in the purpose and nationality of the people on board: in the 2015 event, many of those on board were reportedly escaping from Syria or African countries. In the 2012 event, those on board the Costa Concordia cruise ship were tourists, mostly from (western) Europe.

The comparison of how the people on board the two ships were named allows us to test whether there are any alternative naming choices. Or, whether the ‘we call them migrants because they are migrants’ explanation holds up logically, thus meaning that those on board the 2012 ship were also labelled with reference to their purpose as holidaymakers and tourists.

I started by just focussing on the headlines, which are particularly important because they provide a frame for reading and interpreting news articles, and the figure below summarises what I found.


As the figure shows, people on the 2012 vessel were mainly described in terms of their role on board (passengers, crew), while those in 2015 were described in terms of their reason for the journey (migrants). Conversely, those on the 2012 ship were rarely described as tourists and those on the 2015 ship were rarely referred to as passengers. Those on the 2012 boat were more likely to be referred to as people, and less likely to be referred to by numbers (e.g. more than 900 feared dead).

In terms of identifying possible absences from the 2015 reporting, we can see that there were terms other than migrants available in this context: people and passengers. And this is where the ‘we call them x because they are x’ argument falls down. Because obviously people belong to many potential classifications at the same time. Both groups on both ships were simultaneously passengers and people and potentially survivors and victims, and both could be counted and named as just numbers.

Choosing to privilege one classification over another is part of the speaker’s evaluation and point of the story. By talking about migrants, the story that is told is one of migrants, people who are unlike ‘us’. And by talking about people, the story that is told is one of people, people just like ‘us’.