Let’s Talk About Language

June 30, 2014
Virgil Thomas, ChangingAging.org


I was visiting the doctor yesterday where I was told I had a “markedly deviated septum.” I will also be “prescribed a medical option.”  If this does not “resolve the difficulty,” I will be “recommended to undergo nasal septal reconstructive surgery, as well as undergo bilateral partial turbinectomy.” To all the medical professionals out there, I might have to explain my frustration.

It took about 5 minutes of prying to get the doctor to simply explain that I have an old broken nose that is making breathing difficult.

Language is like a computer. It is extremely powerful. We rely on it every day, often without even realizing it. But most of us have really no idea how it works. In fact, the only time we really become aware of how computers work is when they break down or function inconveniently. After all, how many non-IS majors use computers? And how many non-linguists speak everyday?

I find it fascinating that we can understand so little about something that has had, some would argue, the greatest impact on humanity. Language can bring us together, drive us apart, it defines everything in our world, and can even change something’s meaning.

In our world, the world of The Eden Alternative, we see that few things are as powerful as language. Consider for a moment these phrases and words juxtaposed:

  • Senior Citizen – Elder
  • Facility – Home or Community
  • CNA/Caregiver – Care Partner
  • Resident – Care Partner
  • Skilled Nursing Care – Person Directed Care
  • Meal Time – Lunch

If the institution is what we are trying to fight, we will never succeed, as long as it is reinforced by institutional language. To describe a person as a “dementia patient” or “someone who is demented” we have effectively condensed that person to one condition, one dimension. By changing just a few words and saying instead, “a person living with dementia,” you have managed to convey to everyone (yourself, other employees, and the Elder) that they are a person, so much more than a diagnosis, by putting the person before the disease.

The state of language is in constant flux. We change it, and it changes us. We have the power to create new words or phrases, like “to google,” and to change old ones, like “peruse” (it probably doesn’t mean what you think it does). But in a similar way, language changes us. For proof of this, you need look no further than the prominence of euphemisms in our culture.

Another list:

  • Food Insecurity – hunger/starvation
  • Force Depletion – Number of soldiers dying
  • Income Inequality – People have more money than you
  • Enhanced Interrogation – Torture

In every example, we see phrases that move us away from the humanity behind these concepts by burying it in jargon, the essence of institutionalism.

None of us have the power to change the system overnight, it takes time and practice. When I first started working for The Eden Alternative, I had to practice the language on a daily basis.

At my doctor’s appointment, I was dealing with a person who was clearly well-trained and well-versed in her jargon.  She just suffered from a inability to connect the language to the person. Next time you speak, think not about the definition of the words, but of their meaning.

4 Comments. Leave new

Yes, indeed. It is language that connects us and language that separates us. We might even say that everything exists in language. And, as the author implies, language can be used to create that which we wish to exist in the world.

Perhaps he.. as I… will chuckle when I gently point out that he, like all of us, falls into the trap when he writes, “After all, how many non-IS majors use computers?” I wish I knew what that means… but I don’t. chuckle.


I am a registered nurse in her 41st year of practicing. I am now privileged to work with seniors and can relate to your comments first hand. I too often characterize my clients by their diagnoses as a short form of describing a situation to another care provider. In comes from years of working in an acute care setting where dialogue is minimal and it needs to be succinct. I have worked very hard to redirect this habit when speaking with my clients and their families but it is always a healthy reminder to remember how it feels to be on the other end of this. My favorite expression is “these are people, not boxes, we should be honored by the opportunity to provide service!


Wonderful to have this view and information available to all! Email and text are prime examples, in my view, of just how powerful words can be as their intent is often totally misread. It’s another example of disconnection with our humanity. Change starts with the individual and clarity of meaning indeed!


Nicely done Virgil! Language is always a work in progress and something that takes a great deal of self-awareness. I am always encouraged when talking to organizations that understand the power of the spoken and written word to drive the culture of care. They are willing to hold each other accountable to use language that promotes growth and well-being. It is through that commitment that they will change the world!


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