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Some words just make me cringe.

I don’t mean your typical four-letter words or even bad grammar; though I do admit, seeing “their” in place of “they’re” makes me jump out of my chair to reach for a red pen.

No, I mean the kind of words that evoke a double- or triple-take; the kind of words that demand a blank stare and open mouth. Do you realize what you just said?

Words that make me cringe, that make my stomach turn, are often those words that are coated in arrogance, sprinkled with ignorance and borne out of a disregard for human dignity.

Last spring, I found myself listening to a group of students discussing illegal immigration. The more they talked, the more uncomfortable I became with the hatred and lack of compassion underlying their speech.

They spoke of the “illegals” and “aliens” and ways to fix the “problem.” I’ll spare you the details of their proposed solutions.

I wondered if they realized that regardless of nationality or legal status, these “illegals” were human beings, equal in dignity and equally deserving of basic human rights.

A few months prior, in a conversation with fellow students who were decidedly on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the others, one of the women derided such hateful, dehumanizing language.

Such hateful words stripped immigrants of their humanity, she claimed. I agreed with her.

Yet in that same conversation, she referred to born babies as a “disease.” Nothing more than a sexually transmitted disease.

I don’t think she realized the hypocrisy of her words.

She was willing to usurp the humanity and personhood of infants because this class of human beings made her personally uncomfortable, even though she knew the powerful effect of words.

The use of language to dehumanize certain classes of people, to exclude them from the human community, to make them non-persons and deprive them of their rights, is well illustrated. Let me remind you of but a few examples.

The 1857 “Dred Scott vs. Sanford” U.S. Supreme Court decision declared blacks to be a “subordinate and inferior class of beings,” naught more than animals or a piece of property.

An 1896 New Mexico Supreme Court opinion described Native Americans as “wild, half-naked, thieving, murdering, savages.”

Nazi Germany labeled Jews as a “disease” and as “parasites.”

Throughout history, women have also endured dehumanizing labels such as “deformed,” “parasite” and “property.”

Certainly most of you would agree with me that the business of denying certain classes of people basic human liberties because of seemingly arbitrary characteristics—skin color, religious beliefs, lifestyle choices, gender, nationality, language—is a perilous business indeed.

Yet it seems we have not learned our lesson. We may use new words, but the words we use are just as dehumanizing.

Undocumented immigrants are “aliens.” Those in a coma or with certain kinds of brain damage are “vegetables.” Unborn human beings are “parasites” or “products of conception” or “uterine content” or a “disease.”

Furthermore, the elderly and the homeless are a “burden.” Women are “objects” or anonymous “sexual toys” in the pornographic industry. Babies are a “punishment.”

Sound familiar?

What about you? How do you describe the most vulnerable individuals in our society? As human? As something less than human?

Think about it.

And please, don’t use that word.

Andrea is not a linguistics major. Contact her at

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