The Write Stuff
Longing to Belong
Euphemisms, which Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer called “linguistic evasions,” are easily ridiculed and often rightly so. Victorians supposedly called table legs “limbs” to avoid embarrassing associations, and that does sound ridiculous. Saying your dog “goes to the bathroom” on its morning walk is laughable, too.
The attachment of “community” to groups has its place, too, though the use of that word can also be expanded to the point where it seems a little overdone. When that happens, the word “community” itself loses some of its meaning, and its value — when properly applied — is diminished.
Even so, it is precisely because neologisms like these are valuable that we have to be careful with them. For some years, the political columnist and presidential speechwriter William Safire wrote a column on language for The New York Times, and many choice items from those articles were collected in Safire’s Political Dictionary, several editions of which have been published. It’s worth dipping into.
Safire touched on all this in an item on the word “community,” which he defined as a “kindly lumping together of related organizations, instilling by euphemism a sense of shared purpose not always reflecting reality.”
And the history of the word’s use that Safire traces says a lot. To avoid the unpleasant connotations of “the military-industrial complex,” he says, Pentagon bureaucrats came up with “the defense community.” Sounds a lot less menacing, doesn’t it? The ol’ cloak-and-dagger crowd, by a similar switcheroo, became “the intelligence community,” and from that time forward (to haul out a phrase no one has uttered in decades) it’s been Katy bar the door (go ahead, Google it).
There might be troubling sociological reasons for this. In his classic The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet ponders “the growing sense of isolation in society” that characterizes contemporary life. We long to belong, and we want marginalized people to have a sense of belonging, too.
Consider the term “the unhoused community,” which seems increasingly preferable these days to “homeless people.” The Los Angeles Times uses it, as do a number of nonprofit organizations, no doubt with the best of intentions.
Maybe “unhoused community” is a worthy addition, but I’m not sure of it. “Homeless people” is specific and direct and elicits an emotional response of human concern. There are real individuals and families here, facing an immediate crisis or dealing with a chronic and excruciatingly difficult condition. “Unhoused community,” by contrast, is abstract, vague and impersonal. That’s a sign that the coinage probably isn’t a good idea.
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