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Q: What is nurse-friendly language and why is it important?

A: The language we use affects how people think about nursing and health care generally. It has long been recognized that the terms used to describe important ideas and subjects have a real effect on how people think, and therefore on what people do. This is true in every field in which public speech is a critical element, including advertising, law, politics and the news media. For instance, a lengthy National Public Radio piece aired on February 28, 2005, examined the media's use of particular terms to describe government programs and proposals, and the pressure that advocates have applied to persuade the media to use certain terms and avoid others. The piece was filed by Brooke Gladstone, a co-host of NPR's "On the Media" program.

Why does the choice of terms matter? Because as the NPR piece notes, "[h]e who controls the language controls the debate." The main example in the NPR piece is the debate surrounding the Bush Administration's efforts to change the United States' Social Security system. Many have objected that the use of the positive term "Social Security reform" amounts to subtle support for President Bush's argument that the system is in desperate need of change and that his ideas are a good way to fix it. Similar arguments were made about the term "campaign finance reform" prior to passage of the McCain-Feingold legislation in 2002. Some maintain that a more neutral term might be "Social Security overhaul." Yet, as Gladstone notes, that term too might suggest needed repair. The piece notes that this kind of calculation is nothing new in politics, explaining that the creators of Social Security in the New Deal era themselves considered other names before deciding on the "soothing sibilance" of "social security" as a good way to sell the program to "a nation mired in depression." A libertarian critic argues that Franklin Roosevelt himself was very conscious of the power of words, and that his "Federal Insurance Contribution Act," which governs the collection of Social Security tax, is a carefully calculated distortion of what is really going on. The piece goes on to discuss other terminology debates. These include whether the current war in Iraq should be described as part of the "war on terror," and whether the estates of those who die are subject to an "estate tax" or the newer "death tax," a term that one conservative advocate says helped to cause a drastic shift in public attitudes toward the tax.

But what does this have to do with nursing? Consider that the practitioners of medicine are commonly described with the term used for the highest academic degree granted anywhere, and the practitioners of nursing are described with the term that is commonly used to mean breastfeeding. To believe that these terms and others like them do not affect how people think and act with regard to nursing, we would have to reject decades of experience and hard thinking by noted practitioners of the other fields discussed above. It is critical that everyone uses language that promotes an accurate view of nursing and its contributions to modern health.

See our specific language suggestions that we feel promote respect for the nursing profession by clicking here.


Help change language and thinking by downloading and printing our street-art posters and hanging them in places where people congregate whose thinking about nursing you would like to change (coffee shops, medical schools, telephone polls near your local newspaper...).

Click here for our specific nurse-friendly language suggestions

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