Seattle’s homeless population rose by 4% in 2018, meaning that homelessness defines the lives of over 12,000 individuals in the city. When considering the connotation of the term homeless, however, there is often a lack of empathy associated, dehumanizing a condition that for many is not all-encompassing.
The term homeless has been platformed in recent years as a preferable alternative to using ‘hobo’ or ‘tramp’ to describe the same population. ‘Hobo’ was originally a word that described men out of work, post-American Civil War, while ‘tramp’ was an English term that had referred to long war marches. These seemingly neutral terms evolved in meaning to loosely characterize people experiencing homelessness, branded by a negative stigma and exuding criminal nature and laziness.
In an email interview, UW English professor Colette Moore discussed a process known as pejoration, and a cycle called “euphemism treadmill” that was originally described in the book “The Blank Slate”by Steven Pinker.
Pejoration occurs when a word that originally had a neutral connotation develops one that is negative, resulting in words that replace the pejorized terms. The euphemism treadmill relates to the cycling of words that develop negative connotations, though priorly were purely neutral, in favor of establishing a different term to replace the first.
“If the term houseless has emerged among advocates to try to move away from negative connotations attached to homeless, then the model of pejoration and the euphemism treadmill might be a good fit,” Moore said. “I think that the cycling of words reflects a communicative impulse to move away from words which have developed a negative sense that is unintended by the speaker, and in that sense the process is natural and necessary.”
Similar to the evolutionary cycle of words used to describe people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community, as with the term ‘queer,’ other social issues may necessitate reformation in terminology due to the unconsidered negative impression of that word.
An article that discusses the term homeless with regard to the definition of its root, home, in other spheres of life, depicts how many individuals experience homelessness, rather than perceive themselves to be fully homeless. The term homeless falsely places individuals into a single category, stripping them of basic humanity, while houseless may better serve the population, especially when the issue is situational or transitory.
The recent special feature “Seattle is Dying” has signaled a range in responses, and was especially critical of those experiencing homelessness in Seattle. The feature notably misrepresented a man, Robert Champagne, as homeless, trailing him around at different times of the day in a manner that belittled much of his character. Champagne has been living in an apartment for several years, but was still incorrectly categorized as homeless due to an unforgiving assumption of his outward behaviors.
The typical notion of many toward people experiencing homelessness is to make presumptions of their circumstances and openly regard all people experiencing homelessness to be permanently nomadic. The film’s inaccurate portrayal of Champagne affirmed the implicit biases of individuals toward this group of people, as the term has grouped an entire population under a single umbrella of strictly negative qualities that have developed over the years.
“But the word could well be undergoing a connotative shift [if notions of homelessness become widely connected to negative contexts like violence or addiction] or a semantic shift [if notions of homelessness become widely assumed to be relatively permanent],” Moore said.
By simply recognizing the pitfalls of applying the word homeless to all individuals, even those temporarily displaced, one could understand the benefits of transitioning from more normative language. It is said that “love makes a house a home,” inferring a sense of permanency that is established from the compassion in a home as opposed to a house, the physical structure.
Homeless implies that those currently lacking a proper residence have never known nor experienced a place of love and belonging, which is not an accurate judgment to accept. As a society striving for an all-inclusive and diverse body of individuals, the term houseless should duly replace homeless in an effort to adequately embrace a growing population of individuals who are not currently being fairly treated.
Reach columnist Suhani Dalal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DalalSuhani
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