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The Language We Use: Origins of the 'Refugee'

Updated: May 3

Language matters. The words we use can convey much of what we mean, sometimes without us even realising. There are new words. Words that evolve with time to take on new cultural meaning, sometimes making things acceptable that previous weren’t or vice versa. And words which fall out of use, erasing themselves out of today.

What language are we using when we talk about refugees and asylum seekers? Are we conscious of the words, or are we like a verbose tap?

The definition of refugee does not account for the political weight of the term

The Oxford English Dictionary primarily defines ‘refugee’ as “one who, owing to religious persecution or political troubles, seeks refuge in a foreign country”. The history of the word stems from the 17th century, where the French Protestants, otherwise known as the Huguenots, were forced to flee France for following the teachings of Jean Calvin. King Louis XIV believed them to be a threat to the power of the monarchy, so he revoked the Edict of Nantes signed in 1598, turning the tide against them. The withdrawing of the official order, which had been created to create peace after years of religious bloodshed, including the Parisian St Bartholomew’s Days massacre of Protestants, no longer offered protection to the Protestant minority.

The persecution of the Huguenots:

“One Morning at the Gates of the Louvre“ by Édouard Debat-Ponsan, 1880

King Louis XIV exiled all Protestants pastors, kicking them out of their homes and out of France, but forbid any lay people to leave – those that tried and were caught were either executed or enslaved. Schools and churches were close, marriages invalidated, and Protestants were barred from meeting together. Taking a huge risk, an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 Huguenots left France (out of approximately 1 million), to escape the clutches of a Catholic France that wouldn’t allow them the freedom of their beliefs.

It seems history is fond of repeating itself. The origin of the word refugee feels quite poignant to learn about in today’s climate, when we see so many people forced out of their homes because of political or religious reasons, often resulting in long wars and civil unrest. To me, the word carries much weight. Can we really comprehend the true measure of the experiences many have to go through, just to survive?

Refugees do not choose to be become refugees. There is no choice in the matter. And being a refugee is not someone’s only identity. Mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, daughter, son, friend, neighbour, colleague – the list continues.

The words and language we use when talking to refugees or about refugees matters, as they shape the narrative. Personally, I want the narrative to be a positive one, to recognize each and every person as a human being with their own unique mind and make-up, to show compassion and love to everyone (especially when it doesn’t feel easy, that’s when it really matters), to recognising the trials faced, and to appreciate refugees as beautiful individuals.

What do you want the narrative to say?


About the author

Anna currently works in the publishing industry in the English Language Teaching division. She cares deeply about the right to education as she believes that education has the power to shape and influence people’s lives for the better.

Anna also happily volunteers as an English Teacher for Conversations Over Borders.


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