When our ruling-class wants to identify someone that’s a member of what they deem as a protected group, they are noticeably quite conscious of the words they use. Not only that, they are conscious of the amount of words used, the tone that these words are spoken in, and whether or not the person that is saying these words are a member of the protected group.

When identifying these protected groups, elaborate ever-changing titles are used, with as much pomp as is feasibly possible. For example, the word ‘LGBT’ on its own, without any frills attached to it, is increasingly becoming displaced by the more elaborate descriptor, ‘member of the LGBT community’. Not only can you be a member of the ‘LGBT community’, but you also be a member of the ‘trans community’ and the ‘travelling community’. 

My favourite one is their preference for the term ‘person of colour’ over the term ‘coloured person’. At first glance, these terms seem almost identical; you’d struggle to grasp why someone would have a preference for one over the other. It just goes to show how meticulous these people are when it comes to the words they use.

They correctly recognise that the term ‘coloured person’ is too raw, lacking any vestige of prestige. ‘Person of colour’, in comparison, gives this group an elevated sense of honour and esteem. This elevation in esteem comes from the slightly unexplainable prestige the word ‘of’ has in English language. It may just be down to the fact that the aristocracy used the word ‘of’ in their titles – King of Ireland, the Duke of Leinster, the Earl of Kenmare – and knowing this, we now associate the phraseology of ‘x of y’ to those that are noble and high-minded. 

This eye for detail in the language we use reminds me of the case of De Valera receiving a document from the British that included the term, ‘Ambassador in Ireland’. De Valera, annoyed at what this implied, crossed out the word ‘in’ with his pencil and replaced it with a ‘to’. You may view this as comical, and certainly Tim Pat Coogan, his biographer, thought so, but De Valera was merely being perceptive of what the words ‘in’ and ‘to’ implies for Ireland’s status as an independent state.

Those with power demand that their prestige is portrayed in the language we use. Both the aristocracy and clergy were incredibly perceptive of this, which is why both insisted on being referred to as ‘My Lord’. The ‘My’ insinuates a relationship between the speaker and the person they are referring to, and the ‘Lord’ confirms that their relationship is a subordinate one.

One way prestigious people try to signal to subordinates their status is in the long elaborate titles they insist on being referred to as. People generally don’t add in more words than is necessary – unless you are one of the unfortunate people that have an East Yank speech impediment and say ‘like’ at the end of every sentence. Languages have gone through tens of thousands of years of evolution to further aid our desire to condense information down to as few syllables as possible. Purposefully adding in extra words, therefore, is only done as a way to emphasise the importance of the person you are referring to. 

We see this in the elaborate titles royalty give to themselves, but we can also notice this in the elaborate titles given to protected groups in our modern era. ‘Member of the trans community’, is unnecessarily elaborate for a reason – it is prestige-signalling. The very fact that this group necessitates five words in order for an adequate descriptor to be achieved is a way of signalling their importance. This privilege is never afforded to the low-status. 

The only exception to this rule is in the long elaborate titles given to those that are used not to emphasise prestige, but rather to emphasise their presence – often a presence that the speaker views as unwarranted. An example of this would be in the use of the title, ‘Roman Catholic Church’, by those that have nothing but contempt for the Church. This elaborate title is used in the same way the phrase ‘the big bad wolf’ would be used. It is meant to arouse in the listener, who may also hold anti-clerical prejudices, an animosity similar to that which is felt by the audience in a pantomime when the bad guy comes onto the stage in the long drawn out way it tends to happen in. 

The tone that these descriptors are spoken in, is also quite noticeable. As we are all products of the world we live in, we are well aware that even using the word ‘black’ to describe someone whose skin is, black, in the nonchalant neutral way we would use any other word in the English language sometimes garners a negative reaction by those around us. 

We are making these people potentially uncomfortable being in our presence because we aren’t timid when using words to describe these protected groups. They would rather us be like, “that person was … ahhh … black, … person of colour? Sorry which way should I say it? I don’t mean to be racist or anything”. And then there are some words like ‘queer’, where only queers themselves are allowed to use the word.

The thesis of this piece is as follows: The reason why these ornate titles are used is because it is a form of prestige-signalling. Words follow thoughts, but thoughts can also be manufactured or enforced with the words we use. 

The words we use reflect our beliefs, if you use reverential language to describe groups you want to disempower, you are working against your own interests.

Posted by Seán Joseph

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