Marginalize

Submitted anonymously

Tony responds:
I can think of at least two problems with euphemisms like ‘marginalize,’ but I can think of a solution to only one of them. For the other problem, my best hope is that readers and contributors to this site might have some ideas that haven’t occurred to me.

The first problem, the one I can solve, is that ‘marginalize’ and its cousins — neglected, underserved, disenfranchised — are usually just dainty doubletalk for ‘poor.’ This isn’t always true (see problem No. 2), but it’s true a great majority of the time. For some reason, people who have dedicated their lives to a heroic struggle against poverty seem to have voted, en masse, to banish the word ‘poor.’ I can only guess at their reasons: ‘Poor’ probably strikes them as vaguely disparaging (like poor performance, poor health, poor excuses), or maybe it seems too pityingly condescending (‘Oh, poor Dave! He used to be so handsome … ’).

In truth, the oldest meaning of ‘poor’ refers to scarcity, not low quality. Not till the 14th century, when the word was already 100 years old, did it start referring to quality as well as quantity (‘poor wit,’ rather than ‘poor in wits’). But even then, this meaning was secondary to the main one, which was — and remains — a reference to small resources. No matter. It has somehow become declasse to describe poor people as ‘poor,’ a trend that has led to a whole Thesaurus of euphemisms to fill the void, like disadvantaged, low-income, low-wealth, and my least favorite, under-resourced.

(As an aside, I have often wondered what poor people think of these gilt-edged terms for their circumstances. No doubt many poor people would prefer not to think of themselves as poor at all, because they see their hardships as relative and maybe temporary. They would rather not put themselves in any category that sounds like a long-term, absolute condition. But that reasonable objection would apply just as well to ‘low-income,’ ‘low-wealth,’ and certainly the even-more-desperate-sounding ‘marginalized.’ It’s not the sound of the word, but the heavy burden of the condition, that makes most people want to avoid it.)

When the goal is to discuss ways of bringing people out of poverty, or to rally support for reducing poverty, or even just to discuss problems commonly associated with poor people, the 800-year-old English word ‘poor’ is still the simplest, most vivid, and most universal term for the job. By contrast, most of the euphemisms, besides being cumbersome, give a subtle impression of unease, awkwardness, even squeamishness — as if the idea of poverty were somehow too icky to talk about in plain language For that reason, the euphemisms actually have the opposite effect to the one intended. Instead of conveying respect for poor people, they create a disturbing impression that writers who use these oddball expressions must get the heeby-jeebies at the very thought of actual poverty.

Now for the second problem, to which I have no remedy. Sometimes, people use words like ‘marginalized,’ ‘disadvantaged,’ ‘disenfranchised,’ ‘isolated,’ or ‘excluded’ not to refer to poverty per se, but to refer to the relative powerlessness of people who are, for whatever reason, denied an equal voice in the marketplace, in public affairs, or even in the micro-level decisions that directly shape their lives. Their disadvantages may have less to do with income than with racial or ethnic discrimination, remote geographic location, bad schools, too few ways of banding together with people in similar circumstances, or an inability to speak English (or whatever the local language of power might be).

When people see no opportunity to improve their children’s schools, to get the right medical help when they need it, to take part in public debate, or to compete equally in the marketplace, there ought to be a word for their circumstances. If ‘marginalized,’ ‘excluded,’ and ‘disadvantaged’ seem like weak choices — and I concede they do — I’m nonetheless at a loss for something better. Yes, ‘marginalized’ is frustratingly silent on questions like ‘marginalized by whom?’ or ‘on the margins of what?’ It’s unclear, unspecific, uninspiring, and un-everything-else. But we live in a world where whole groups of people really are shunted off to the margins of politics, the economy, and social life. A big slice of the nonprofit and charitable sphere exists explicitly to remedy that state of affairs. It isn’t reasonable to expect them to do their jobs without a few words to describe the problem they’re solving.

If there are better words, then we ought to encourage people to use them. Trouble is, I can’t come up with any. Anyone out there have a solution? Email us if you do.

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