Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


New 'familyspeak' lets adults off the hook

By Marilyn Gardner / February 20, 2002



In the imaginary world of George Orwell's novel "1984," an official language called "newspeak" gradually replaces standard English. Euphemisms and politically correct speech abound. The goal, Orwell explains, is to "diminish the range of thought."

Skip to next paragraph

Today, a real-life version of Newspeak is quietly changing the way people talk about domestic relationships. Call it "familyspeak."

Instead of "stepfamilies," professionals speak of "blended families." They use "partners" as an all-purpose word to describe not only those in cohabiting relationships but also husbands and wives. And they refer to "parents" rather than "mothers" and "fathers."

Jill Kirby, the author of a new report on the consequences of family decline, calls these new usages "terms of disguise." She warns that they "mask the truth" about the unhappiness that family breakdown and cohabitation can cause. Her report, "Broken Hearts," was published last week by the Centre for Policy Studies in London.

"Many people think of stepfamilies as a difficult concept," says Mrs. Kirby in a phone interview from London, explaining the preference for the gentler phrase "blended families."

She finds the current use of the word "partner" jarring, noting that people avoid talking about the importance of marriage for fear of being considered

judgmental. "If everybody becomes known as a partner, and no one will use the term husband or wife, it's a way of bringing everything down," she says.

Kirby offers a real-life example. A few weeks before the birth of her third son, a midwife asked her, "Will your partner be at the birth?" It took her a moment to realize that the midwife was referring to her husband.

Those who defend mar-

riage, Kirby suggests, should stand up and say, "We do not like the word 'partner.' It denigrates the importance of marriage."

Kirby, a former lawyer who now writes and broadcasts about family issues, understands the good intentions that motivate this "familyspeak," and the desire to make things better for children. But the widespread use of these terms by reporters and politicians, she says, can foster a public reluctance to face up to social problems and find solutions.

Any journalist who writes regularly about family issues knows firsthand the perils of using the phrase "working mothers" in stories about maternity leave and child care. It's a surefire way to prompt letters from readers who insist that the correct term should be "working parents." Fathers, they point out, must share responsibility for childrearing.

Agreed. The term "working parents" has its place. So does "parental leave." But the reality is that mothers still bear primary responsibility for young children. To abandon the phrase "working mothers" risks deflecting attention from the need for more maternity leave to help young families.

Similarly, the increase in fatherless households underscores the need to emphasize the important role fathers play.

"If you just use the word 'parents' all the time, ultimately it's harmful to the child, because you're ignoring the child's need for a mother and father who have special roles," Kirby says. She also sees a tendency to substitute "caring" for words such as "love" and "affection."

Words - silent or spoken, printed on a page or floating through the air - carry enormous power. Some are precise; others are evasive. Language is never static, frozen in some perfect past.

New words and new forms of description can enrich speech and enlighten understanding. They can also erase the hurt that old, stigmatizing words like "illegitimate" inflicted on children who could not be blamed for their parents' actions. Even the updated use of "blended" may help some stepfamilies forge stronger ties.

But as Orwell would be the first to understand, relationship jargon, carried to an extreme, can work against the best interests of children and parents if it draws attention away from the need for better policies, government and corporate, that will help families - many of whom need all the support they can get.

Permissions