Calling Names

What’s in a name? A lot.

When I first visited the UK in 2008, I was shocked to hear British people referring to anyone not UK-born as foreigners. I heard frequent references in the news to foreign countries. Listening more attentively, I could tell foreigners didn’t really extend to Canadians, Americans, or Australians. It became evident the term foreigners was used only for non-whites and/or non-English speakers who had come to the UK.

It’s a cultural norm; it’s also racist. Using the word foreign creates an Us-versus-Them mentality: “You don’t look like us or sound like us, so you can’t be one of us.”

The problem is that the word has two meanings: one means “from another place” while the other means “strange or abnormal.” A speaker can intend the first meaning (and will always insist that’s what they meant), while the listener hears the second meaning. When a word is so loaded and harmful, I argue it shouldn’t be used.

Great Britain is a little island; to say the entire rest of the world is foreign is laughable and also perhaps a carryover from its colonial past.

When Rom joined me in Canada, I reviewed terminology with him: We follow international news. The local universities have international students.

With recent events in world news, I am checking my language to ensure it’s not merely accurate, but kind. You have probably heard about author Neil Gaiman’s solution:

I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.” Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile. You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening. I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!” (Neil Gaiman, February 2013)

So I started thinking about how I can ensure my own language is respectful, and maybe give other people a nudge if I can do so respectfully. The language and culture in some areas are changing quickly. Most of us use the terms newcomer and new Canadian for anyone who has settled here recently. However, I hear a lot of people (personally, or in the media) confuse refugees and immigrants. Here is how they are defined by the Canadian government:

Refugees are people who have fled their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution, and who are therefore unable to return home. Many refugees come from war-torn countries and have seen or experienced unthinkable horrors. A refugee is different from an immigrant, in that an immigrant is a person who chooses to settle permanently in another country. Refugees are forced to flee. Canada resettles refugees to save lives and to provide stability to those fleeing persecution who have no hope of relief.

Meanwhile, if someone has emigrated to Canada, they have met all the conditions of the immigration system. Both immigrants and refugees are legally entitled to live and work in Canada. If someone “disagrees with” immigration, they are usually disagreeing with the current government approach to immigration, or to the quotas. But they often show their disagreement by criticizing the immigrants and refugees themselves.

Most of us know that immigrants are usually brought in to deal with labour shortages, and that refugees usually start with low-skill jobs unwanted by others. For example, in my area, no one wants jobs on overnight cleaning crews, or picking apples and strawberries. They are low-paying physical labour. No one wants their kids doing those jobs, either. So, they are most often filled by newcomers. Then the locals complain that foreigners are taking our jobs, that is, the ones we didn’t apply for and the business owners had to advertise in Mexico and the Philippines.

Sometimes people draw sweeping conclusions based on anecdotes or their own situations.

A mother and her grown daughter visit my library daily. The daughter recently graduated with a diploma in digital animation, a very popular program for which there are few local job openings. The mom showed me an article in the newspaper in which a recent refugee was offered an animation job. It was intended as a feel-good story showing that the refugee had in-demand skills and could make a living soon after arriving in Canada. She pointed at the article and said, “No wonder my daughter can’t find work, when they are coming over here and taking all the jobs!” I gently asked if her daughter had known about or applied for the job in question (which was located several hours away) and she conceded, “Well, no, but still!”

So here is a family blaming their economic and employment woes on refugees! It’s a slippery slope.

There is so much misinformation. Three or four years ago, a story made the rounds of Facebook, saying that refugees received twice as much in monthly living support as “our own seniors.” This was patently false. Refugees who are not privately sponsored receive a one-time amount of $1700 (in my province) for settling up a household, and someone had twisted this to state that refugees were given $1700/month indefinitely. I called my local immigrant settlement association about that one!

The next words that irk me are a legal term: illegal alien. Yes, that is a legal term, so there are a few contexts in which it can be used. But to treat people with respect, we can use undocumented worker. This one is unambiguous for me. Either we refer to someone as a human being, who is in the country without the right ID to stay and get a job, or we are referring to them as an instance of a legal issue. To me, a person is a person, with a life and a story, and there may be a route to a happy ending. Of course, it is an issue of race, culture and class. No one would call William and Kate illegal aliens if they overstayed their visa on a vacation island on their next world tour. It’s rare that anyone reports their neighbour’s nanny from the Dominican, either – as long as the worker has utility, and “knows their place ” (i.e., works long hours and is paid cash), they remain in the underground economy.

I’ll leave off by writing a bit about names. I have a difficult last name that I always have to spell. It sounds like another word and I am always expected to laugh when people say it. Let’s say my name was Boyard and everyone said, “Oh, like Chef Boyardee, ha ha!” It is one of those kinds of names. Everyone asks me where it comes from. I don’t mind chatting about it when there’s time for a conversation. As a consequence, I really feel for people whose names aren’t Anglophone. Please read this recent account of someone’s experience giving their name in a restaurant. I’m sure you know, too, that job applicants with “difficult” or ethic names are often skipped over, for reasons of overt racism or the employer’s awkwardness in making that first phone call. A follow-up to that research is here; if you read all the way through, there are oddities in the methodology. Chloe Washington – really?

Almost 40,000 refugees from Syria have been settled in Canada in the past 15 months. The one Syrian refugee family I know are grateful to be safe in Canada, but they are also keenly aware of what they left behind (not just in geography, but in time, because they literally can’t go back to what they knew). I fear they will be referred to as “the refugees” forever. I have henceforth vowed to refer to them by their names – the Azmeh family (pseudonym). I will not try to coerce Fadwa to “just let us call you Fay because it’s easier.”

I invite you to show kindness by using names and words that are not divisive.







  1. Mel

    Excellent points Dar. People are people.

  2. I loved this post. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot myself, given my country’s current leadership, and my wonderful city’s promise to remain a “sanctuary city” despite the threats from our president.

  3. jollyhollybanolly111

    Great post and totally valid points. I have heard the word ‘foreigners’ being used so many times in the way that you described in the UK.

  4. Dar, well done. There so many misconceptions that have lasted for decades. Things that have been long ago disproven still have a half-life in the minds of too many, whether it talking about those in poverty, homeless, refugees, etc. Keith

  5. NicolaB

    I only ever use ‘foreigner’ sarcastically, if I am mocking an attitude I disagree with (“foreigners taking all our jobs”) etc. Though I think in the U.K. now people probably talk about immigrants rather than foreigners..
    My surname has to be spelled out to people, even though it is four letters long! I work in a school and struggle with pronouncing some surnames, which I feel bad about, but luckily the kids are happy to correct me and I try not to get it wrong again- it’s just basic courtesy.)
    “It’s treating people with respect gone mad”- I love this!

    • Yes, I am sure things are changing. Maybe just a few instances stick in my mind because I’m unaccustomed to hearing the words at all.

      I didn’t know you worked in a school now!

  6. I too love replacing political correctness with treating people with respect. I am going to do it from now on.

    My mother and father were immigrants. My mother was called a “New Australian” for decades. She hated it. Totally based on her accent. My father did get that. People would perjoratively refer to him sometimes as a 10 pound Pom, as that was the discounted travel offered to encourage English migration.

    We had a White Australia immigration policy until the 70s. It was as horrid as it sounds. Immigrants could be given a dictation in any European language. There was a noted case where a polyglot who was t from Europe but could speak multiple European languages was tested in Welsh to keep him out.

    I hate asylum seekers being called illegal immigrants. There’s nothing illegal about seeking asylum. The current news story you may have heard about the phone call between Trump and the Australian PM, centres on us sending refugees who we have placed on an island in the Pacific to the US. All so the govt can seem “tough on illegal immigrants” and protecting our boarders. I actually think Trump is right to ask why should the US take them. It is disgraceful. Id want to answer, you should take them because maybe you’re more compassionate than us? Like NZ who has taken heaps of the asylum seekers we deny entry to. We should hang out heads in shame.

    • Fiona

      Never thought I’d write this, but I also agreed that Trump’s outrage over that deal was justified! It was a very shrewd, politically expedient way for Australia to try to escape a horrible mess of our own making.

    • From what I’ve read, Canada changed its immigration policy whenever it felt like it, to exclude whoever it felt was a threat, but primarily Chinese, Japanese and Black immigrants. This was officially changed in the 1940s but trivial pretexts were used to keep many non-white immigrants out until the 60s. So we have a shameful history too.

      I have a great-aunt who came to Canada as a war bride in the 1940s and still had a British accent in the 2000s. I used to wonder if she retained it on purpose!

  7. So very thoughtful and on target. Could you tweet this to our President please. Apparently although he doesn’t read any books he does read tweets.

    On a different note, my first name is an unusual Swedish last name that I have to spell and then get asked about. I am fortunate that the origin doesn’t elicit negativity but I see what happens when the person being asked to spell and explain their name is of “unwanted” origin, religion or heritage. My nephew’s lovely wife is African and their children mixed race. So far they have continued to live in Africa and now Taiwan in part because of concerns about how they would be received in the USA. Very sad.

  8. Fiona

    Too much to say about this to fit into comments only! Other interesting words: “assimilation” versus “multiculturalism.” I was very interested that France has more of the former approach while Australia has for decades had an explicit multicultural approach. As a society, I think we’ve been very successful in adopting inclusive language and mutual respect of different cultures…there is no general assumption that people should totally “assimilate” and lose their own identity. They are claimed as Australians whether they speak much or even any English and regardless of clothing etc. (sometimes whether they want to be designate as “Aussie” or not.) There is even pride in the most obvious external signs of multiculturalism like our thriving food scene and festivals.

    But that is counter-balanced by long-held, historical insecurities about sea border protection leading to the appalling and legally-questionable asylum policies of off-shore detention. All a very hot-topic in Europe as well with elections forthcoming in Germany and France.

    • Sometimes I think the only thing keeping Canada so (comparatively) lenient about immigration and refugees is our terrible climate. And the vast distances between us and the originating countries. We don’t have to monitor our sea borders at all. Canada claims to be a “mosaic” rather than a “melting pot,” and we are proud of our multicultural policies and practices. But in reality, I think a large percentage of the population believe that immigrants should do more to fit in, especially with language learning. The current Australian policies and practices are very concerning. I can never tell if they are what most Australian citizens want. But maybe so, if the ruling party was elected with knowledge of their intent. It is never too late to resist 🙂

  9. SP

    Really great post, thanks for sharing this.

  10. Rusty

    As a Brit I feel rather put down by your comments, Dar. “It’s a cultural norm [in the UK] Its also racist”

    Foreign does means different, or from somewhere else, yes. (And hallelujah for those differences!) but I know many, many people who would never use the word to apply to their neighbours, or the man on the bus or anyone they meet here whether they are British born or recently immigrated or even just visiting. I do hear it more often from the older generation, maybe because they had little exposure to other cultures as we enjoy today. And the use of the word to mean ‘strange’ is surely dying out? ‘It was foreign to him’ is a very old-fashioned sounding expression.

    I hope you are not generalising about how Brits think about issues such as race and immigration, etc? I am sure there are ignorant people both on the streets and in public life who use inappropriate language in your country too.

    • Hi Rusty, I am sorry to offend. I visit the UK once a year, and spend time in rural Sussex, as well as London and Brighton. Unfortunately, I keep hearing the words foreign and foreigner used by people we know, as well as pervasively in the media. So I am referring to my own experience as a visitor, and should not generalize. As you say, it is more common among the older generation and in reactionary media. There is definitely a faction in Canada who are anti-immigration and un-PC in their language! The current liberal government won by a landslide in 2015, and the conservative party is trying to rebuild. One of the candidates is Trump-like. I want to believe he will be squashed, but I thought the same of Trump. I can’t pretend to know the strength of feeling of the type of working class voters who might support this guy. So even if I were to generalize that Canada supports refugees and immigration, I hope the next election won’t prove me wrong.

  11. Good! Goog! Goog! And thank you for giving me a kind response to arguments of being pc, instead of my normal snarly “positively comprehend”. I’ve immigrated so many times I lost count. Yes, immigrated. There is the term I hate, expat; a welcomed, financially beneficial immigrant nobody expects to learn the language, culture or even pay full taxes (in some places) and I refuse it. But nobody seems to blame them for anything!

    • Expats are not much of a thing in Canada. We don’t have the climate for it! However, a lot of Canadian seniors spend 6 months of the year in warm parts of the US like Florida and Arizona. (6 months away allows them to retain their health care coverage). I think in those areas, Canadians are a nuisance!

      • Oh, I think the term are used differently there. In Europe, they are (almost) all relocated specialist with benefit packages. (And “Goog” is of course the sleepy spelling of Good.)

  12. Margie in Toronto

    I applaud all that you have written – we all need to be kinder and to think first. I would like to ask you to respond to a couple of issues that have come up here in Canada recently – I’m honestly asking as I’m not quite sure how to respond myself (I’m still considering).
    The news has been full of stories lately about “refugees/illegal immigrants” crossing the border on foot between the US and Manitoba in order to avoid the US border guards and how many of them are risking frostbite and even death due to the frigid temperatures. The Globe and the CBC have run – what are intended to be heartwarming stories about these cases – but the comments section has certainly not responded in this way. People are angry and feel that these are not refugees as spelled out by the Geneva Convention but rather they are Economic migrants looking for the best deal possible. Many have travelled through countries deemed safe and many have lived in the US for years (either underground or legally while awaiting approval on their status) – under today’s conventions they should not be allowed into Canada as they have had the chance to seek safe shelter during prior stops. They are in effect “jumping the queue” when others have taken the time to fill in the proper paperwork, hey have gone through the medicals required and they have been properly vetted – and this ability to jump to the front of the line angers many of those who have gone through proper channels. How do you or other readers view this situation?

    I also take a bit of issue with people assuming that it was so easy for those of us of European background. I myself am an immigrant from the UK – my parents had to complete the paperwork and ensure that they had enough points, my dad had to have a job and we had to have a sponsor who was financially responsible for us for at least a year after we arrived – and my friends, from various countries had to go through this same process. Just because we were Caucasian and European doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a difficult decision to make or that the process wasn’t difficult both socially and economically or that there was an open door with no requirements or responsibilities.

    I wish that it was possible to take in everyone but I don’t think that’s feasible. It is so very sad and I don’t know what the answer is. Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Hi Margie, You have given me a lot to ponder! My opinion is no more or less important than anyone’s. I understand the reasoning behind the Somalis who are leaving the US for Canada. Since their home country is on the 7 Banned list, they feel they have no hope of having a positive outcome in the US, even though their cases are pending. Having read up on it, you know that refugees are supposed to apply for asylum in the first safe country they reach, rather than “picking and choosing.” It is hard to claim that the US is a safe country any more, and that the Somalis will be subject to due process – the travel ban argues otherwise. There is talk about Canada rescinding its support of the Safe Third Country agreement but I wonder if Trudeau is willing to antagonize Trump that openly. I hope so. Canada already sets limits on both immigrants and refugees; we don’t have an open border. There have been few enough humanitarian exceptions that they have been accommodated. Those instances are accelerating now. We’ll see. In general, few refugees are just “showing up” in Canada because it is hard to get here by either sea or land, so it’s not an issue we’ve dealt with much. Did you know that black immigrants used to be excluded from Canada for spurious reasons like “climatic unsuitability”?

      Because immigrants choose where to settle and are not fleeing, I know people do trivialize their struggles. For example, Rom was self-employed in the UK and he gave up his business to join me in Canada. He (rightly) determined there was no market for his former business here, so he went to work for an employer and will now have to work a 9-to-5 job until retirement age, a long way off. It was a big sacrifice, although chosen. He has ageing parents he can visit only once a year, and so on. I do think there is a widespread belief that unless you were a refugee, you have not faced any hardships. It is not an either/or situation: there is room for shades of grey.

  13. Margie in Toronto

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply – these are very difficult issues – and I suppose my feelings are mostly inline with our Government’s policy of accepting refugees from war zones such as Syria and Iraq. But, I do still think that those, who are in fact “economic refugees” should be sent back promptly – but allowed to apply as an immigrant at a later date. There has to be some sort of process in place and I don’t think that people should be allowed to manipulate a system meant to assist those in dire need and imminent threat of death. I think it’s insulting to those poor souls.

  14. Thank you Dar for as always an interesting piece.
    I agree that how we use language is crucially important. Sometimes people use language in ways that offend in part because they have no realisation that what they are saying is offensive. For example, at can remember being told by a friend that someone was being ‘jewy’ (ie mean with money), and her being shocked when I explained to her that I was offended by that and what the word meant. She never used it again (at least not in my presence).
    I think you’re absolutely right that in the UK (and I’m sure elsewhere as well) we have a problem with how some people talk about those who come from other countries or cultures. This is exacerbated by the press (and I would single out the Daily Mail in particularly), which often perpetrates myths about all the woes of the country (and there are many) being down to people from other countries coming here to abuse our ‘generosity’ and ‘excellent systems’ – generally focussing on those people who aren’t white caucasians.
    Of course the truth is very different and very varied. The fact is also that without the people who have come to the UK from elsewhere, our NHS and other public services would collapse – they make up a large part of the workforce, both skilled and unskilled.

    • Hi Deborah, I like your example. It is great when people take a moment to speak up, and even better when a bit of education takes place and change happens. The UK is in a difficult situation, as a densely populated country with an open border to the EU, also easily reached by refugees from the current trouble spots. We haven’t experienced those pressures in Canada. There are certainly trade-offs involved with Brexit, as you know, such as UK citizens no longer being able to live and work freely in Europe, and restricted markets for UK products. I follow news on the EU, CETA, NAFTA and TPP!

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