Your Words Matter: Why the Labels We Use Can Be Problematic for Progress

by kwheele4 on April 22, 2021


Discriminatory labels take away from the full scope of a person’s true identity. Photo courtesy of Snappy Goat.

Your Words Matter: Why the Labels We Use Can Be Problematic for Progress

By Julia McCoy ’22

Asst. Opinion Editor


“He’s a convict.”

“Oh, she’s anorexic.” 

“He must be schizophrenic.”

These phrases are common in everyday conversation. Whether it is with friends, family, or just overheard in public, people are constantly describing others by what they have done or something they cannot control. Why should we let an illness or one thing that someone has done represent their entire identity? 

When describing someone by saying they “are” something, it implies that this characteristic is inseparable from their personality. By defining someone by their crimes or mental illnesses, it permanently reduces their character and dismisses anything else that they have done or may do in their lives. 

This is why, recently, the Marshall Project—a nonprofit journalism organization devoted to criminal justice issues—decided to avoid using terms like “convict,” “inmate,” and “felon” in their writing. In an Instagram post shared on April 13, the Marshall Project noted their “continued engagement with incarcerated readers” taught them that these terms “narrowly and permanently” define people. 

This shift is important. It shows that media outlets are beginning to listen to all of their readers and viewers, including those who are directly impacted by the use of this hurtful language, like incarcerated people. Additionally, “The Language Project” could change how readers communicate about these topics in their own homes. 

The new language includes terms like “incarcerated people” and “people in prison.” This suggests more of a temporary state of being, rather than suggesting that this condition will be imposed on their character for the rest of their lives. Overall, it is meant to promote the idea that those who have been imprisoned can re-enter society and should not be burdened by their past actions for their whole life as long as they have served their time.

Here at Providence College, these conversations are had in a different context. Each year, Active Minds has a meeting centered on the dangers of “-icking.” When asked for a definition, Active Minds co-president Abigail Pruchnicki ’22 said, “-icking labels a person by one aspect of their behavior. For example, calling someone ‘anorexic’ makes someone’s perception of that person dependent on their suffering from anorexia, rather than their actual characteristics.”

Instead of this language, Pruchnicki gave a list of other ways to talk about disordered behavior and mental illness: “You could say they have a disorder or suffer from a disorder.” This small linguistic adjustment separates the person from the behavior. Being intentionally conscious of the language that we use to describe people, we can create a more inclusive campus community surrounding mental health and other ailments. 

In addition to creating a stigma or idea about people from an outsider’s perspective, these terms can have an adverse effect on those who are being labeled. As Pruchnicki said, “-icking can lead someone to internalize their label and will make it worse. They should be seen as a whole person rather than just one aspect of disordered behavior.” Thus, the community and affected people can all benefit from an introduction of inclusive language.

Mental health and criminal justice reform are serious issues plaguing the United States in recent years. In order to promote the continuation of progress on these issues, it is important to address the problematic language that has allowed these issues to perpetuate for many years. Inclusive language is only the first step of many towards inclusion and change, but it is certainly a step that would positively impact the lives of so many people.

In the end, the world can be a better place if we start to recognize that people are not defined by what they cannot control. By allowing individuals to separate themselves from mental illnesses or past convictions, they are empowered to continue working on themselves, rather than resigning to a label they can not change.

2 thoughts on “Your Words Matter: Why the Labels We Use Can Be Problematic for Progress

  1. Education is a continuous daily process for everyone, thank you for this very insightful article.

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