GREG RAY: Making names stick

THE reason most journalists want to use the right words to describe members of Australia’s native, indigenous, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander groups is simple.

We respect them just as we do all other people and we want that clear to all.

We want everybody, from anywhere, to know that they will get a fair go when they talk to us and that we will represent their views without fear or favour.

But sometimes finding the right word to describe any group of people is difficult, especially when those people have been subjected to sustained discrimination.

Words can get tainted, so words that seemed good for a long time can become not so good from the point of view of those being named, described or defined.

Like “spastic”, for example. That used to be a common word applied to people with certain forms of disability. The Spastic Centre was a popular charity for decades. 

But after being abused over a long period, the word took on an offensive overtone and was discarded.

In fact, during almost three decades in journalism, I’ve been re-educated a few times on preferred terminologies for people with disabilities.

I remember in the early 1980s the push from some quarters to abandon the word “women” in favour of “womyn” – preferred because it had no “men” in it.

These battles, debates and friendly discussions over words and names are in constant play in our daily language, whether we are aware of them or not.

And they can be very tricky because all groups of people contain differences of opinion, so a word that is accepted or embraced by one person might be offensive to another.

In Walgett years ago, for example, many locals insisted on referring to me as a “gubbah”. One or two explained that they considered it a shortening of the term “government man”, applicable to white fellers, like me. It’s a word, I gather, that is sometimes meant dismissively.

I thought I was being polite and well-informed when I suggested I might call these acquaintances “Koories”, but some scoffed and said they were “Murris”, not Koories, while others scoffed in a different way and said the word was supposed to be “Goories”. Or ‘‘Guris’’, if I could hear the difference.

Since then I’ve tried to keep things simple, whenever I could, using words like “man” or “woman” or “bloke” or “feller”, no matter where the person came from or what they looked like.

But sometimes you can’t tell the story without explaining a bit more than that, which is when things can get tricky.

The expression ‘‘indigenous’’, for example, seems to have fallen strongly out of favour, with many regarding it as racist.

Recently some Herald correspondents were moved to complain about the use of the word ‘‘Aborigine’’, saying it was offensive and suggesting the newspaper abandon it in favour of ‘‘Aboriginal person’’.

On the Creative Spirits website, the president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Maria Tomasic, writes that: “Aboriginal people are a diverse group of individuals and use of the term ‘Aborigine’ has negative connotations imposed during colonisation and can perpetuate prejudice and discrimination”.

On the same website Worimi elder Les Ridgeway Senior writes: “Let’s have one definition to suit us all. That is, the word ‘Aboriginal’, for we were all born of an Aboriginal culture. We live an Aboriginal culture and we will die an Aboriginal cultural person ...Let us be united with one clear voice and tell governments and newspaper editors to refer to us as Aboriginals”.

Not every person will be happy with any single term.

Ultimately, perhaps, the way the word is used matters more than the word itself. 

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