Tag Archives: labels


Labels are something we’re conflicted about.  We feel like it is wrong to label people, and yet labels are also really useful.

Last week I was at a trendy restaurant in Cincinnati, and as often happens, I needed to use the restroom.  I scanned the dining room and saw no signs.  I did see a double swinging door, like taverns always have in western movies.  I pushed one of the doors, trying not to cause a scene by having it knock me over on the rebound.  There was a double sink ahead of me, and one door on either side.

Now, they looked like doors to restrooms, but there was no indication of that.

I went back through the tavern doors and asked a waitperson, and she indicated that they were indeed bathrooms.  They had apparently failed to label them to avoid designating a gender preference for either one.  The word “restroom” would have been a very useful label.

Sometimes we use labels to bunch people or entities together.  If we don’t like a category of some sort we often associate them with bigness.  Big business, big politics, big labor… somehow being big makes something bad.

We label groups of people too.  The terms millennial, gen-x’ers, and baby boomers are used to define generations, and put certain characteristics on the people in those generations.  Millennials don’t care, baby boomers are self-centered, etc.

In politics liberals are “bleeding hearts” and conservatives are “racist, sexist, homophobes.”  Libertarians are not well enough understood to label.

The thing about labels is that they sometimes have a basis in experience, but too often they are used as intellectually lazy attempts to group people or things in tidy categories – many times in insulting ways.

Some labels have changed over time.  Some people call almost any group of people a family.  A marriage no longer consists of one man and one woman, according to the law of the land.  The word “illegal” has changed to “undocumented” in some circles.

So, you could say that some labels are used to marginalize some groups, and other labels are changed to keep from marginalizing other groups.

I guess things are always evolving, especially in term of language.

Getting back to the whole restroom thing, in Europe the term “water closet” is used almost everywhere, and many are not gender specific.  If the door locks, I’m fine with that.  If there are multiple fixtures in a restroom, and no locks on the door, I’d just as soon have it be gender-specific.  But, I’m old fashioned.

I try to listen when people label other people or things.  If I think the labels are unfair, I keep that in mind, and try to make up my own mind.


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Filed under 2015

Ists and Isms

The other day I was pondering how and why certain words are chosen to represent certain groups and behaviors. For example, are we Deerfield-ites and Cambridgians, or Deerfieldians and Cambridge-ites?

More to my point, though, are words like writers, editors, and teachers, but also words like escapists, rapists, and artists. Who decides who gets the “er” or the “ist?” Escaper sounds like that could work. Arters doesn’t right at all.

Groups we don’t like, like rapists, facists, racists, communists, and sexists get the same suffix as artists. So do capitalists and socialists.

But people who see homosexuals the way sexists see women are called homophobes. It’s interesting that out of all the “ists,” people in that category get a suffix that says they are afraid of homosexuals. I guess some people who are troubled by homosexuality may be afraid of gays and lesbians, but I’m not sure all of them are.

Using that strategy, sexists would be called female-aphobes, and communists would be called freedom-aphobes. If anything, people of color who are afraid of whites might be correctly considered race-aphobes, given the improving, but historically unfair treatment they’ve received.

And, we could probably coin the term “hetro-aphobes” to refer to homosexuals who don’t like straight people. I honestly haven’t met any, but they may exist.

Some terms are confusing. A naturalist likes nature, while a naturist goes au natural. Vegetarians eat vegetables. Humanitarians don’t eat humans, fortunately, and veterinarians don’t eat veterans, except in very rare cases.

In my lifetime, we’ve all become more aware of the power of words. Non-sexist language has turned firemen into firefighters, policemen into police officers, mailmen into letter carriers, and manhole covers into utility access portals, or something.

As a father of two daughters, I’m glad that they saw fighting fires and crime as career options, and not something for men only. But I also know that word choices can cause a slant in perception. For example, a capitalist sounds less friendly than someone involved in free enterprise, and that the terms pro-choice and pro-life are attributed to opposite sides in the dispute, but do not have opposite meanings.

In an era when the world of technology has commandeered words like icon, friend, tweet, like, mouse, cursor, hash, and tag, it may be tempting to become cavalier about how we use words. I guess it’s always struck me that words really are important, and that we owe it to others to use words in a fair and clear way, and owe it to ourselves to question the use of words that misrepresent.

For now, I’m going to continue to be a write-ist, and avoid being a naturist, at least until it is much warmer.

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Filed under 2014