The icon indicates free access to the linked research on JSTOR.

Words are a dangerous game.

The words we use to describe other people matter. Too often, we may think we’re using labels to humanize, to give a group an identity – but we end up demonizing them instead. At the very etymological heart of the word ‘refugee‘ is the necessity for refuge. You might think that that in itself would be the very thing to generate empathy. How then has it become, for some, a word for undesirable masses of inconvenient bodies that are—somehow—not quite human?

The upheaval stemming from social, political, and economic crises worldwide has seen words like migrant, refugee, asylum seeker, immigrant, and even the regrettable short-form illegals, being used, sometimes interchangeably and increasingly negatively, to describe people who have been displaced from their homes, often after going through unimaginable hardship. At times used as pejorative weapons, these words are broadcast widely in the mainstream media without much thought given to the insidious, dehumanizing connotations they might carry.

Some of these phrases are frequently used in troubling contexts, yet because the broad dictionary definitions are silent on the value judgements that some may place on these terms, it can be a little complex to determine why (and for some, whether) they have developed problematic nuances. Al-Jazeera’s recent decision to stop using the term ‘migrant in favour of ‘refugee‘ tells us that, at least for some, ‘migrant‘ has acquired an unacceptable pejorative weight. For others, migrant may read more neutrally.

Words can be harmful: this much is clear. But which words?

Firstly, why is this important anyway? Well, this isn’t simply a case of name-calling in the schoolyard. The words the media chooses can have instant and widespread political ramifications on whether a country will support those who have escaped horrific conditions in search of safety for themselves and their families.

The circumstances that cause people to flee their homes – clearly not something you would want to put yourself or your family through on a whim – should really be enough to elicit sympathy and support from anyone, but unfortunately this is not always what we see. Instead, the debate too often hinges on whether asylum-seeker claims are worthy or authentic, with the implication that those involved are somehow vaguely criminals (the term ‘illegals’ says it all). The way language has been used in mainstream media to talk about immigration issues has been a major influence on how pejorative shades of meaning have developed in what were previously innocuous terms.

The discussion around the recent Syrian migrant crisis has grown increasingly and disturbingly shrill in some quarters. While the same words are being used over and over to describe the situation from all points of view, it was finally a bleak photograph that made it clear this was a story about human beings. It took the shocking image of a small body washed up on a beach, that of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, to be broadcast globally before politicians of all stripes were forced to take action, offering refugees what they needed most – refuge. Even then, some of the more hardhearted refused to be overly moved, such as Hungary’s hardline government, and Tony Abbott, the (recently ousted) Australian prime minister increasingly at odds with most Australians on the subject of immigration, who initially and rather callously used the situation to promote his own three word political slogan of “stopping the boats” (of asylum seekers). (Abbott’s catchphrase has developed into something of a disturbing mantra, erroneously implying that those asylum seekers who risk life and limb to reach refuge by boat are somehow breaking the law versus migrants who arrive in relative comfort by plane. We’ll see why this is interesting shortly).

So how has the word migrant, which once simply referred to a person who moves from one place to another, acquired a negative connotation?

Before we delve into this question, you might find it curious that one term you’re unlikely to see in these contexts is expatriate (or expat).

Migrant and expatriate both describe people who have moved from one country to another, but tellingly, an expat is unlikely to be called a migrant worker, even though expats are, after all, migrants who work in a foreign country. There’s clearly a class-based judgement here in the way many choose to apply these terms. An expat is more likely to be someone who has resettled while still retaining the means and the freedom to choose to return to their home country, and with that kind of agency, is perceived as being more in control, more of an individual, somehow more human. Meanwhile, the terms migrant and migrant worker, ostensibly neutral in their definitions, have already acquired a much less positive nuance in practice, bringing with them stereotypes of low-income labor taking away local jobs and the flow of indistinguishable strangers from some unfamiliar place who may not share the same values.

The key here, as others have pointed out, is the question of humanity. Between an expat and a migrant, who gets to be human? Who gets to be a statistic?

We are conditioned to feel empathetic towards those who are like us and more fearful and dismissive of those we don’t understand. So the choice of label and language by those who control public discourse – politicians, journalists, and public commentators among them – have the power to dehumanize one group while generating sympathy for others. Words are not just words. Migrant, being a more neutral term, has been used widely for all kinds of contexts. Perhaps it’s that very neutrality which works against it. In discourse, if a label like ‘migrant‘ is consistently used in the company of problematic words and concepts, then that label will likely inherit some problematic connotations. Those collocations don’t even have to be overtly negative for them to subconsciously bias us one way or another.

Recent critical discourse analysis on the kind of language commonly used throughout the narrative of immigration has uncovered a few fascinating linguistic patterns that may help explain our subconscious biases here. Two studies, Baker et al. in 2008 and Majid Khosravinik’s followup work on the representation of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants in the press, analyzed samples from the UK news corpora and showed that, perhaps a little unexpectedly, publications from either side of the political spectrum shared significant similarities in the way they depicted immigrant issues, even if they had entirely different agendas and intentions.

Regardless of political bent, publications uniformly referred to large numbers and overwhelming quantities when discussing immigration crises. Frequently, metaphors associated with water were used in conjunction with this, giving rise to phrases such as the ever swelling numbers“, “flooded by the rising tide of refugees“, “the looming influx of immigrants“, and of course, stopping the boats” of “illegal maritime arrivals – dehumanizing terms that depict the situation almost as being scarily out of control.

Metaphors like influx, flood, wave, tide, stream, pouring in, etc., used in conjunction with labels like migrantsrefugees, asylum seekers, and boat people, can certainly convey the large-scale horror of a people’s displacement and generate more support for those who desperately need it by a sympathetic press. Take for instance this recent story from Time, “How Climate Change is Behind the Surge of Migrants to Europe,” which starts, “Even as Europe wrestles over how to absorb the migrant tide, experts warn that the flood is likely to get worse as climate change becomes a driving factor” (Emphasis my own). Curiously, the exact same metaphors can also emphasize the overwhelming number of displaced people as an unwanted problem for an all too cautious society. See “Will Migrants Flooding Europe Embrace Western Values?” The unfortunate corollary here is that such widely and consistently used metaphors by both sides rapidly zoom out from a focus on individual humanity and individual stories. The language takes away agency. The result: migrants become statistics, not people.

These metaphors in language use may seem harmless at first, but we’ve seen previously how the most neutral or innocuous words can go from being harmless to harmful very quickly. Dictionary definitions are not enough. Context is important. Dictionaries are slow-moving records of how native speakers use language. All the connotations that a term might carry may not be documented until much later. Semantic change occurs because languages are constantly in flux, no matter how stable they seem to us now. Semantic deterioration or pejoration (in which words shift to a more negative meaning) happens rather more frequently than semantic amelioration (in which negative words can be reclaimed in a more positive light). We’re just prone to think badly of others. The word ‘boor‘ just meant ‘farmer’ at one point, before it came to mean ‘a crude person’. Similarly a quick glance at the word ‘gay‘ shows how it’s changed rather rapidly, going from a positive label for a group of people to a negative slang term, and back again.

So, which is more negative, migrant or refugee? Well, the 2008 study from Baker et al. actually found that those words, along with immigrant and asylum seeker, were used fairly synonymously. Of course, that perception may have changed in today’s world. What’s interesting is that there was overlap in some shared linguistic features and the contexts (mostly negative) they were found in. So it seems what really matters is the company these words keep.

And the latest in water-based metaphors in the immigration debate? Anchor babies. It seems almost designed to be provocative. The blending of metaphorical concepts related to anchors, babies, and immigration can fix certain negative connections in the brain, according to linguist Jenny Lederer, who has investigated how ‘anchor baby‘ in particular became a pejorative. To simplify, anchors keep a boat in place, babies are loved by families and valued in society. Nobody hates anchors or babies per se. But put together, in the realm of immigration, the idea that a baby would be used as nothing more than an object to anchor a family in country they supposedly have no legal rights to is presented as morally bankrupt. The phrase reinforces a stereotype that undocumented immigrants are calculating and inhuman enough to use their newborn babies for gain. It’s more important than ever that we begin to recognize these expressions for what they are or what they’ve become – verbal barbs calculated to hurt.

These are extraordinary times where truly horrific situations are happening to ordinary people – human beings, not faceless numbers. How we choose to describe this matters very much for how we view the people who, in some other life, could very well be us.


JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students. JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.

Discourse & Society, Vol. 19, No. 3 (May 2008), pp. 273-306
Sage Publications, Ltd.
Discourse & Society, Vol. 20, No. 4 (JULY, 2009), pp. 477-498
Sage Publications, Ltd.
Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 31 (2002), pp. 419-447
Annual Reviews
International Review of Education / Internationale Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft / Revue Internationale de l'Education, Vol. 42, No. 4, The Education of Minorities (1996), pp. 291-307
Poetics Today, Vol. 13, No. 4, Aspects of Metaphor Comprehension (Winter, 1992), pp. 705-724
Duke University Press