Slaves vs Enslaved People – The Subtle, Strong Power of Words

By words we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life.- Jean Baptiste Girard

People get upset a lot these days about political correctness, about the need to be so careful in how we speak, not just in the intentions behind our words. I understand this. It can feel like we’re parsing our words so carefully that we can’t say anything meaningful at all.

I believe in saying meaningful things. I believe in saying powerful things, things that sometimes people don’t want to have said because they hurt or they expose or they bear witness.

But I also believe in saying things wisely and realizing that our words not only reflect our thoughts but reinforce them and shape them.

This is why people appropriate words that have been hurtful to them in the past – queer or nigger or chick. When we use these words to bolster ourselves instead of against those we find to be “other,” we swipe their power back into our own hands.

Recent scholarship into the history of slavery in the U.S. holds a prime example of how the way we speak both shows our thoughts about it and also forms those thoughts. Today, most historians speak of “enslaved people” instead of about “slaves.” It may seem small – like the difference between the Muslims and Muslim people – but it is oh so powerful.

By changing from the use of a name – slaves – to an adjective – enslaved– we grant these individuals an identity as people and use a term to describe their position in society rather than reducing them to that position. In a small but important way, we carry them forward as people, not the property that they were in that time. This is not a minor thing, this change of language.

So while I certainly don’t think we should be quick to get our hackles up over generational shifts in language or the inadvertent misuse of a term in the wrong context, I do fully believe that we should be aware of the way our words change who we are as people not to mention the people to whom and about whom we speak.

After all, as writers, we understand the power of language to shape us as much as it changes those who read are work. We owe it to ourselves and our readers to use our words to make good things and honor people rather than perpetuate ideas or systems that hurt us all.

What do you think? Are we too careful about our choice of words? Not careful enough? What’s a person’s (a writer’s?) responsibility about the choice of our words?

  • Hannah

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  • sade

    I cringe everytime I hear the word slave. I prefer to call them enslaved. I finally googled slave v enslaved and found ur article. Now I feel justified in my feelings. These were people forced into labor. We should say so and not stigmatize them

  • Margie Van Vliet

    “Enslaved” is not only awkward, it is inaccurate. For example, when discussing the negro slaves our great-grandparents owned, we cannot refer to them as enslaved because there was no one around who did the enslaving. Typically these negro slaves were descendants of other slaves, originally enslaved by other negroes back in Africa … and those enslavers were long since dead.

    • Andi

      Margie, respectfully, I disagree. The people who were owned by other people here in the U.S. were enslaved by those people. There is no way to avoid that in our American history. Some of us owned other humans; we enslaved them. We could have freed them, but we did not. Thus, it does not matter what people did before us. Our choices to not free the humans we owned meant we continued to enslave them. To pretend otherwise is to lessen the suffering and oppression these people experience, and I will not do that.

  • Jenine

    I just came across this phrasing and am trying it out. I like that it makes more explicit that slavery was not part of their nature but was imposed on them.

  • Franciscus van der Maat

    I agree. Words are powerful and subtle they shape the way we view the world. Especially when talking about sensitive and actual topic like slavery and its legacy, it is very important to carefully consider the choice of words. We need to realize that by persisting in using the words of the past we, perhaps unintentionally, also adopt some of the thoughts and convictions of that past. Even if we don’t actually see it like that it may seem to others as such, which can be very hurtful and inaccurate.