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Perspective: They’re ‘incarcerated persons,’ not inmates, and you’re the bad guy if you don’t agree

Has the ‘person-first’ approach to language gone too far in New York?

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A photo from June 24, 1937, shows convicts sentenced to a chain-gang camp work at a stone quarry in Jasper, Georgia.

A photo from June 24, 1937, shows convicts sentenced to a chain-gang camp work at a stone quarry in Jasper, Georgia.

Associated Press

A general rule of good writing is to never use two words when one will do. The state of New York violated this maxim, as well as the universal standards of common sense, when it recently decreed that people in prison are no longer “inmates” but “incarcerated persons.”

The law, signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul last week, seems to be an administrative nightmare, requiring that the word “inmate” be struck from every instance of “correction law, the executive law, the local finance law, the mental hygiene law, the penal law, the public health law, the social services law and the administrative code of the city of New York.”  

The change was widely mocked on social media by people who said that New York officials are more concerned about criminals than crime.

However, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who introduced the bill, called it “another concrete step our state is taking to make our criminal justice system one that focuses on rehabilitation rather than relying solely on punishment.”

It’s unclear how using a clunky term rather than a simple one will advance the rehabilitation of people in prison, but the move is certainly another concrete step in making woke ideology the subject of ridicule. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is among Republican leaders who are betting that voters have grown weary of demands that they conform to the language of the left; DeSantis has declared that his state is where “woke goes to die.”

Chances are, incarcerated persons will remain inmates in Florida despite the urgings of people who advocate for the rights of “persons confined to jails and prisons,” as the Department of Justice politely describes them.

That’s not a bad thing.

The word “inmate” derives from the words “inn” and “mate” and still means, according to my dictionary, “a resident of a dwelling that houses a number of occupants.” By this definition, I’m an inmate when I stay at the Residence Inn. In centuries past, the word was even used to describe students living in dormitories, before it became the word we use to describe people living in prison.

And that’s all it does.

The word “inmate” does not engage in hyperbole, like some people who object to its use, including the woman on Twitter who called it “a barbaric term.”

Words evolve, like Kim Kardashian’s hairstyles. But lately words are evolving faster than the average baby boomer can keep up — in some instances, for better; in others, for worse.

Last month, New York replaced the term “mentally retarded” in its laws with “developmentally disabled.” That was a good move, and probably a little late.

Even Republicans say “firefighter” (instead of “fireman”) and “flight attendant” (instead of “stewardess”) without a fuss, and few take issue with “alcoholic” and “addict” having been replaced by “person with an alcohol disorder” and “person with substance abuse disorder.”

These changes reflect the “person-first” approach to language that, more controversially, also includes obesity. (A person no longer is obese; he or she “has obesity.”)

There are kind and thoughtful arguments behind this approach. As Michel DeGraff, a professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The Associated Press, “Word choice to describe certain individuals does matter. Especially when it comes to individuals who are vulnerable in any way.”

He went on: “When you say someone is born a slave (for example), it can make someone think there is a category of people who are slaves by nature, but there is no such category,” he said. “No one is born a slave. You are a human being, and then you were enslaved.”

The same argument is being made for why we should say “person who is incarcerated” despite the fact that “inmate” is a pithy word with a benign history. Any negative connotation derives from the fact of imprisonment, which the substitution of “incarcerated person” will not erase.

In fact, it’s only a matter of time before “incarcerated person” will also be said to carry a stigma. Sure enough, one person has already suggested that incarcerated person be shortened to “IP.”

Can “guest” of the state of New York be far behind?

The ideological left — i.e., persons who are woke — are behind many of the language changes that seem to be sweeping America at warp speed. Some, you may not even know about — for example, many real-estate agents have stopped using the term “master bedroom” in favor of “primary bedroom” because of the word’s association with slavery. (I have yet to break this to my mother, a proud “Master Gardener” and MSNBC fan.)

Other words recently deemed problematic include housekeeping, manpower and even “Mom and Dad,” which one company’s website says reveals “an assumption of certain family structures, as well as ‘traditional’ gender roles in the home, that may or may not resonate for some members of your audience. The better words are parent(s); partner or spouse.”

Lest you find that funny, there are already places that have replaced Father’s Day and Mother’s Day with “Grown-Ups Who Love Us Day.” So don’t laugh too loudly.

As for the use of the word “inmate,” the battle is already lost, at least in certain parts of America where “incarcerated person” is already widely in use as a synonym.

That’s a hill no conservative should die on, anyway. But they should fight tooth and nail for Mom and Dad.