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'We're Americans, We're Not Refugees'

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: What to call the homeless of Hurricane Katrina?

RS: Some have called them "refugees." We asked Oxford English Dictionary consultant Ben Zimmer for a history of this word.

BEN ZIMMER: "It comes out of religious persecution in the 17th century, when the Catholic government of France persecuted the French Huguenots, the Protestants of the time. And they were forced to flee to other countries and also to the British colonies in what is now the United States. And so this term 'refugee' was used to describe them. After that point, it became applied to various other groups who were fleeing persecution or various political problems. And it eventually became used to refer to any displaced persons driven from home, by a war for instance."

AA: "So now over the years, though, has the term refugee been applied more and more broadly -- for example, to natural events like storms?"

BEN ZIMMER: "It has. Perhaps the most well-known example of this was in the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl -- the term that was used for the terrible dust storms that affected the central part of the United States -- this caused many poor farmers to flee, many of them going to California. And these poor farmers were called 'Dust Bowl refugees.' And there was a well-known song by Woody Guthrie ... "

MUSIC: "Dust Bowl Refugees"

BEN ZIMMER: "But it's interesting to note that even back then, the term was problematic. Woody Guthrie's biographer Joe Klein said that Woody Guthrie hated the term refugee, but he used it in the song as a way of, again, identifying with the plight of the people who were affected."

RS: "Is that the recent example of the use ... "

BEN ZIMMER: "More recently if you look at the coverage of various other disasters that have happened -- for example, the forest fires that started outside of Oakland, California, in 1991 -- 'refugees' was also used. It really is only with the coverage of Hurricane Katrina that it's become such a controversial term."

RS: "And why?"

BEN ZIMMER: "Well, we first started hearing objections on Friday morning, Sept. 2. That was when the Congressional Black Caucus had a press conference where they objected to the term. And that was really -- that was really the first serious objection, although there were some news reports. Actually just the previous night, Fox News reported from a shelter in Baton Rouge, a person at the shelter was quoted by Fox saying: 'We're American citizens. We've had a tragedy, yes, and we're out of our homes. We are not refugees.'

"And this point that 'we're Americans, we're not refugees' was one that was picked up by the Congressional Black Caucus and other African-American leaders. The Rev. Jesse Jackson went so far as to say that it was racist to call American citizens refugees. So there was a kind of a consensus that seemed to arise involving people directly affected by the storm, but also commentators and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum that it was potentially offensive to use this term."

RS: "So what you're saying here is that public perception did have an impact on what the media wrote, and what people are saying and the language of discourse now?"

BEN ZIMMER: "It did have a tremendous effect. But those who said that refugee was an acceptable word to use sometimes objected to the word 'evacuee.' They said it was too clinical or too tame or perhaps euphemistic, and that refugee would be a word that really gets across the power of what happened and also was a kind of indictment of government officials whose neglect might have had something to do with the plight of the people.

"Another point that was made, by Lavinia Limon, who's the head of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, she was saddened, she was disappointed that people were treating the word refugee as such a pejorative term. On the other hand, she understood that this was perhaps not the most appropriate term to use. She said that, legally, refugees are people who suffer from persecution based on race, ethnicity and religion and so forth. She said that it would be better to call them 'displaced Americans,' because they are not people without a country."

ROBERTA COHEN: "If you acknowledge that these people are internally displaced persons, then you also can turn to international standards written specifically for these people."

AA: That’s Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Ms. Cohen helped organize those standards for the United Nations.

ROBERTA COHEN: "If you want to call them 'evacuees,' you won't turn to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. You know, the U.S. may look at I.D.P.'s as people uprooted by a civil war or ethnic cleansing in a country. But, according to the U.N. guidelines, they also apply to natural disasters."

RS: Roberta Cohen of the Brookings Institution, speaking to us from Geneva. Ben Zimmer is a consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary. He spoke to us from New Jersey.

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is and we're online at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.