From Prada to Poverty – My journey with language

From Prada to Poverty – My journey with language

I’ll never forget the phone call. I’d got the job. The job I’d been praying about for months. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. After three years, I would be leaving the world of magazine publishing for a role in communications at a non-profit organisation. Goodbye high-heels, celebrity gossip, and deadline drama.

What I didn’t realise in that moment is that my new job would mean adopting an entirely new vocabulary. The words I’d used to describe the aspirational world of fashion and beauty didn’t fit when describing poverty and injustice. They didn’t even seem to belong to the same language.

When we talk about superficial things we generally don’t need to think all that much about what we’re saying. We’re continuously surrounded by words – from billboards, adverts, movies – that influence the way we communicate our thoughts. But in a culture where words are cheap, we often don’t stop to realise that they have power.

Words can label, stereotype and build up walls between cultures, races and continents in the space of a few sentences.

You might be thinking, wow, they’re just words. Could a few sentences really do that much harm?

Think of the words often used to describe people living in poverty.

Poor. Needy. Underprivileged. Lacking. Destitute. Desperate. Downtrodden.

I could go on – and I’m sure you could add some of your own.

None of these words in themselves are bad. But when they get used over and over again to describe a group of people, we stop seeing the people and we just see the words. They become unhelpful walls we’re often too lazy to look behind.

Yes, a person might be materially poor but they could be spiritually rich. They might be lacking income but they could be overflowing with passion, creativity, love, hope…

And then there’s that word ‘underprivileged’. It’s one that’s been used a lot in the South African media to describe people who have been born into poverty with little or none of the privileges others in the country have inherited. It’s a loaded word.

Under. Privileged.

The word ‘under’ seems to strip the person it’s describing of all power. If I was described over and over again as ‘underprivileged’ I would probably start to believe that I was ‘under’, ‘below’ – incapable of getting ‘above’.

What words can be used then? How can a person’s situation be described realistically without putting them into a box? This was the challenge that faced me when I could no longer hide behind ‘glitzy’ words. When the words that were often at my disposal were overused, worn out words.

It took a couple of very patient people, experienced in writing about these issues, to gently coach me towards new ways of communicating. I learned to not use adjectives to describe people as ‘poor’ or ‘needy’, but to rather, wherever possible, separate the person from their situation. For example, instead of referring to ‘a poor person’ to refer to ‘a person living in poverty’. They are firstly a human-being, a person. That they are living in poverty should not become an adjective to describe who they are.

Sadly, the people who get to say the most are often the ones who are reckless with their language; who have been brought up with the privilege of always being heard. Especially in an age where anyone with access to the internet can publish their thoughts, we need to be vigilant of the words we’re using.

This post isn’t meant to be a hand guide for all the trendy ‘politically correct’ terms. There are thousands of those out there and a lot of them are more confusing than they are ‘correct’. Rather it’s a challenge and reminder to not take short-cuts – to not reuse yesterday’s words without thinking, “How would this word feel if it were describing me?”

Do you have any examples/ideas of how we can change our language?

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This post was written by
Sam is a freelance writer based in Cape Town. She is a member of the Common Ground Rondebosch PM congregation.

4 Comments on "From Prada to Poverty – My journey with language"

  • Richard says

    Thanks, Sam! What a good reminder! I try to think through what I would say about someone in their company vs out of their company. If I want to label someone, would I say it to their face, or behind their backs? I also was challenged to think through how I would feel if someone made those remarks, comments or labels about a close family member. Would I be ok with someone putting my brother in ‘that box’? I probably wouldn’t – so why do I think I can do it to strangers?

  • Elise says

    Great article – and good food for thought…

  • Cath says

    Great article Sam, thanks for the reminder. I’m finding it particularity important when talking to my children about these things- making sure that my words are always honouring and help them to respect people from every walk of life.

  • Lee says

    I loved this, Sam. To communicate with respect for both words and people should surely be a primary goal of every writer.

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