“Offence and harm” is one of our core editorial principles and it may be problematic as many of us may not fully understand either the legal definition and implications of this concept.
Words can be both very precise and interpreted widely. As such there is no single authoritative definition of anything. So what’s the point? Language is important because of the meaning it conveys. But that meaning can change—sometime radically—over time. Some of the language used by our parents and grandparents would not be acceptable today.
It may be deemed racist, sexist and homophobic by modern day standards. Or it might be considered politically incorrect. This notion of political correctness is explored by John Vincent who asks the question—“Have we really gone mad?” Political correctness drives a lot of people crazy. They believe in that old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
But words can and do hurt; and if you are male, white and straight they are likely to hurt you less. As an Asian woman of colour, Dreeni Geer has been called many things, from “Paki,” to “visible minority” and “other.” She has to play the game of ticking the right box to define her ethnicity, when in reality race is no more than a social construct, because there is only one race—the human race. And then there is the language of professions, which Ken Williment unpacks in “What the…!!??”
In common with other professions, the world of library and Information science has developed its own terminology that is designed to exclude rather than enlighten. Library language ensures that power is retained by the white middle class hegemony. We are the gatekeepers that decide who and what can come into our world —and those who cannot.
This special “language and power” issue of Open Shelf explores our use of words in different contexts and highlights voices from our community, both in the south and the north. We’re having these conversations locally and we want to open up space to have them provincially.