The wrong verbiage can hurt feelings

Thursday, May 17, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:58 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

I was speaking at a conference recently in Calgary, Canada, when a student from Montana posed this question to me at the end of my talk: “Dr. Merrill, you referred to ‘foreign students’ in your talk. That seems to me to be a put-down of these students. Shouldn’t you call them ‘international students’?”

Here I was, facing this question again. I had been challenged on this same matter by colleagues at MU’s School of Journalism some time ago, but I never thought that it would follow me across the border into a foreign (“international”?) country. I proceeded to lecture the Montana student on the intricacies of English, which to her, was not a foreign language.

Why should I not have called students from a foreign country like France (not an international country) “international” students? They are foreign students studying in the U.S. An international student, I suppose, would be one with several passports, or one who is bouncing around, as a student, between or among nations.

At any rate, it is time for us to recognize that “international” is not a synonym for “foreign.”

After the session, I asked the Montana student, who was a foreign participant in the Canadian communication conference, why I should not use the term “foreign.” Her reply went something like this: Because foreign indicates an outsider, a kind of stranger, a person who does not quite fit in. It might hurt the person’s feelings.

I thought this was not a bad answer and reflected similar statements I had heard before. It is true that, for example, in French, foreign student would be “l’etudiant estranger” and in Spanish it would be “estudiante extranjero.” One might think that these labels would imply a kind of strangeness as well as foreignness. Maybe so. They do imply that the person is an outsider (a non-citizen) in the country where the term is used. But so? That is what they are.

We don’t talk about studying international languages, or visiting international embassies, or buying international cars, or being international correspondents. We really know better, but with political correctness eating away our language like a cancer, we have succumbed to the prescribed — although incorrect — verbiage.

The language is changing, but I wonder if it is for the better. It certainly sounds better. For example, if a dirty, long-haired Auca Indian is found living in a foul-smelling, run-down shack in northern Brazil, he might be described more political-correctly in this way: a primitive Auca Indian, sporting lengthy flowing tribal locks, living in an earthy, traditional structure in northern Brazil. Now, that should make him happy. And, if I approach him, I do so as a “foreigner,” not as an “international visitor.” But doggone it, the language has already gone to the fiery netherworld in a handbasket. So who really cares about esoteric distinctions?

Merrill, a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism, has written and taught around the world and here in Columbia for more than 25 years.

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