People-First Language and the Honor We Owe to God

People-First Language and the Honor We Owe to God

I have never liked people-first language. I understand that people need tenure, so frivolous, silly, and ill-conceived ideas will make it into the public sphere without adequate vetting. No, I do not consider “peer review” to be adequate vetting. Non-agenda-driven, thoughtful, practical people should be engaged with ideas prior to them seeing the published light of day.

I, therefore, understand how people-first language came to be. I fail to understand how it came to take hold so fully. And I most of all fail to understand how otherwise sane, good-hearted people can use it as a litmus test for who is on their team and who is working against them.

My advocacy for people with disabilities began in first grade. I had one friend. I realized early in the year that he could not read, so we began to take a book out to the playground each recess so we could work on his reading. We got caught several times and received swats. Finally, our teacher asked why we were taking a book out to recess rather than playing like we were supposed to. I explained that Jerry couldn’t read, and I was trying to help him catch up to where I was.

He was “tested” and put in the closet at the end of the hall with the children who were “different.” Their class did not share lunch or recess with the rest of the school. School became a lonely, grinding place.

As an adult I have been a part of and founded several special education support groups, especially for parents of school-age children. When my family lived in South Bend, IN, we coordinated the effort to have a Down Syndrome Day Mass and reception at The University of Notre Dame. It was there one year, the following year it was held at Holy Cross College, and in our final year in South Bend it was held at The Life Center’s chapel. That final year I emailed a man who had been involved with the project since the first year, and I said something about “Downs kids.” He responded with considerable contempt about how disrespectful it was to say that, and I needed to use people-first language. No comment about how I had worked to honor a group of people who are being systematically genocided.  

Two of my children have disabilities. My younger daughter, Veronica, has an auditory processing disorder. My older son, Floyd, has dyslexia. Before we began to homeschool, they each had several teachers who used people-first language perfectly, yet they failed to make accommodations in their classrooms. They each had a teacher who perfectly used people-first language and yet tortured them in front of the entire class. That’s only part of the reason I cannot take people-first language particularly seriously.

In English the adjective comes before the noun. This is not disrespectful to the noun. That’s just how the language is set up. The modification comes first. It doesn’t undermine the fact that the noun is essentially more important than the adjective. Other languages are set up other ways. Some languages place the adjective after the noun. Others place the adjective at the end of the sentence. But no matter what I do not see any language as confusing the importance of the noun in relation to the adjective.

A child is a child regardless of the adjectives that modify their childhood. Children can be “happy children,” “silly children,” or “beautiful children.” They are children regardless.

Forcing the language into this oblique and clunky way of speaking does not highlight the fact that these are children first, it just makes us less clear in our communication. The disrespect for the right order of language contributes to the general chaos of thinking and language usage. I remember when I could go to the movies without being assaulted by a string of expletives, even in romances. Now I am not only assaulted by vulgar language, but regularly by the Lord’s name being taken in vain. I remember when basic concepts such as “male” and “female”; “liberty” and “conscience”; “insurrection” and “riot”, etc. were taken for granted as obvious in terms of their meaning.

One of the many ways we see the Church combatting this nonsense and confusion is by Her explication of the mysteries of the life of Our Lord. Our Lady has many titles under which we can more fully understand her life and virtues. Each mystery in the rosary is accompanied by other devotions that use other names for the same mysteries, so we meditate on them in new ways.

The Presentation = The Circumcision = Symeon’s prophecy

The Scourging at the Pillar = The Flogging = The 39 Lashes

Jesus Christ = Our Lord = Emmanuel = The Lamb

By using these different titles for Our Lord and the mysteries of the Church we do not compromise a bit of their meaning. Rather, we see more clearly as we meditate on them how profound each truth is.

I do not fully blame people-first language for the current chaos of the language where even basic definitions of obvious terms are under attack. I do not blame it for the constant stream of blasphemy that meets me when I try to watch any contemporary media. I do not hold it responsible for the creeping stupidity in our public discourse that comes with a choice to live in sin rather than seek repentance.  

I see it as a contributing factor, and I would like to make a request of those who use it, use expletives continuously, and who blaspheme at will: I’ll trade you.

I will use people-first language whenever I speak.

I will not flinch at the sewer hole of vocabulary in modern media.

I will never complain about the silly misuse of basic words for exaggeration purposes. Awesome.

But here is what I require in return: You never, ever use the Lord’s name in vain, in any form. No using our Lord as a punch line. No using his name while making what you believe is an impassioned plea about anything. No using His name in place of an expletive. Just never do it. Under any circumstances.

While I am agreeing to these things for your comfort, you are agreeing to this not for my benefit, but for God’s. God’s rights are the only truly important rights, and you are violating His any time you use His name with anything but reverence.  

We will all stand before the throne and answer for every act, every thought, and every idle word. Please consider that next time you are considering including His name in your comments.

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Written by
Jennifer Borek