BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. For several days the word scarcely registered.
AARON BROWN, CNN: Several thousand refugees from New Orleans have now arrived at the Astrodome in Houston.
KATIE COURIC, NBC: Thousands of frustrated and angry refugees in New Orleans are still desperate for food, water and shelter.
TED KOPPEL, ABC: He puts the number of refugees trapped there at 15 thousand or more.
BOB GARFIELD: Katrina victims were uprooted and displaced, fleeing their homes with whatever they could carry, seeking refuge in motels, shelters, domed football stadiums or wherever they could find it -- residents one day, hapless vagabonds the next. In other words, refugees. Then came the protests. The Reverend Jesse Jackson weighed in, saying the term as applied to the largely black population of New Orleans was racist and demeaning.
JESSE JACKSON: We are not refugees. That in itself is racist language. We are American citizens. We are not refugees.
BOB GARFIELD: NAACP President Bruce Gordon said the term suggested an "alien other, somehow not of us." And media critic Kelly Crossley offered her hunch as to why.
KELLY CROSSLEY: If you think about a refugee, what comes to mind are those people walking across borders in the Sudan, walking across Somalia. And in your ahead, you see those people as persons of color without a home, carrying everything that they own in one bag.
BOB GARFIELD: But is that really the default image provoked by the word "refugee?" Kenneth Bacon, president of the advocacy organization Refugees International, thinks it certainly should not be.
KENNETH BACON: There are thousands and thousands of refugees in the United States, hundreds of thousands. And they don't fit any sort of racial pattern. These are people who were fleeing for their lives, fleeing for freedom, trying to find a better life for themselves and their children. That's what the term "refugee" means to me. And many of these people have great dignity and have that dignity in the face of great loss and trauma.
BOB GARFIELD: New York Times columnist William Safire went farther, suggesting the critics just shut up because a refugee is simply someone who seeks refuge. But as Stanford University linguist Jeffrey Nunberg points out:
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: That's not quite right. If I duck into a ski hut to stay out of a blizzard, you wouldn't call me a refugee. And I think they missed the fact that for a lot of people this word really is charged with negative associations with the stigma that's attached to that word.
BOB GARFIELD: That is largely because refugees, however dignified they may be, tend eventually to represent a burden to those who take them in, a drain on resources and ever present reminder of misery. Like the crippled and the scarred and the urban homeless, they make us uncomfortable. Dehumanization is but one step away. Maybe in recognition of that tragic reality, President Bush asserted this week Katrina's victims are not refugees but Americans in America who "need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens." Surely it is why many news organizations, including this one, decided to replace "refugee" with the relatively non stigmatizing "evacuee." Others, such as the Times and the Associated Press, reserve the privilege of choosing the best noun, in the words of AP editor Kathleen Carroll, "to capture the sweep and scope of the effects of this historic natural disaster on a vast number of our citizens." For his part, linguist Nunberg thinks they're being a bit tone deaf to the word's negative connotations but he doubts that the substitute terminology will eradicate the stigma.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: You could think of it as the drapery you put over furniture that eventually takes the shape of the furniture. It's quite likely that probably "evacuee" will acquire an inherited stigma just as people begin to resent these dislocated people rather than welcoming them, as happened to D.P., or "displaced person," after the Second World War.
BOB GARFIELD: Because changing the nomenclature does not change the underlying thing. On the other hand, as State University of New York at Stonybrook linguist Mark Aronoff points out, words are shaped by more than the underlying thing. They are influenced by and have influence on the society around them.
MARK ARONOFF: Language is a social contract. The fact that people have to negotiate over what they are called is indicative of an underlying social problem. I think what this really tells us is that we don't control the meanings of words and we don't know what words mean. This is a word that's been in everyday use for centuries and yet it has a power that we can't stop.
BOB GARFIELD: It would be easy to dismiss the present sensitivities by recalling that the mostly white victims of previous hurricanes were also called "refugees" and voiced no offense. But if Aronoff is right and if Kelly Crossley is right, that's not the point.
KELLY CROSSLEY: I've heard a lot of people saying we're playing word games at a time of crisis. This is ridiculous. But you know what? Basically that sentiment came from people who have not been on the other end of language directed at them in a negative way that had the power to hurt. So when you have been at the other end of that and you know what that feels like and you know what the impact of that is over days, over weeks, over years, over centuries, then this is really quite important. It's not a word game. It's really not a politically correct thing. It really has to do with paying attention to people's humanity.