Politicized language can be annoying. “Politically correct” is not exactly a term of admiration. That irritation is justified to the degree that a change in language is meant to alter, rather than reflect reality. A perfect example of the bad kind of politically correct: “Deferred success” in place of “failure.” Very 1984 “War is Peace” type of thinking there. On the other hand, “Native Americans” for “Indians,” is inarguably an example of the good kind of linguistic shift — mistaking the Americas for India was the biggest geographical gaffe in history, and its stubborn perpetuation is a metaphor for European arrogance and ignorance.
But recently I encountered an even more potent word change –all the more powerful because the word in question did not stick out as absurdly as “Indian.” It was a short, common word that I had never thought to question: “slave.” My wife and I were walking around a preserved colonial plantation when I noticed an interpretive sign that repeatedly used a novel (to me) phrase that almost knocked me over. Although this had been a Southern plantation, the word “slave” never appeared. It had been replaced, in all instances, by some form of “enslaved man.”
My bias is always in favor of plain speaking. And slave, as ugly as the concept is, was at first glance a very honest word. But the more I thought about it, the more of a lie it became — a pernicious one at that.
Being a slave is something you are, an intrinsic state of being. Being enslaved is something that has been done to you, and has no bearing on your essential being. Calling someone a slave is instantly rendering that person as something other. The constant repetition of the alternative on the historical plaques — enslaved man, enslaved woman, enslaved people — had a surprisingly compelling effect. It made the condensed history of that plantation anything but the boilerplate that would have issued forth without that subtle edit — exponentially more awful, more real.
And that’s exactly what words should do.