One of the ways to address our colonial past is to critically engage with the words we use on a daily basis. For this purpose, this glossary proposes a list of words that may be worth reflecting about. Some of these words may be ideologically loaded and embedded in a colonial mentality, while others – although etymologically neutral – can be used in a way that may reveal an internalised colonial form of thinking. The words whose contextual uses are investigated will be marked with “inverted commas”. Our list is aimed at inviting a critical reflection on the origin and use of certain words in an attempt to generate more awareness about the legacy of colonialism in today's world.
The glossary complements and expands on other similar initiatives such as the WordsMatter guide created by four Dutch museums (Tropenmuseum, Afrika Museum, Museum Volkenkunde, and Wereldmuseum).
We are aware that our glossary cannot possibly be considered exhaustive. To reflect its nature as an ongoing process, we have created a form to gather perspectives on the listed words as well as suggestions for more words to include. The form can be found at the following link (more languages will be added): https://forms.gle/9pJEDybtDQs8EfFd6
During colonial rule, the word boy was used to refer to male domestic servants (cfr. servant).
In his 1956 novel titled Houseboy, the Cameroonian Ferdinand Oyono tells about his life as the boy of a missionary priest and a French commander.
Decolonisation refers to the process of identifying and dismantling the persisting socio-political, cultural, and economic legacies of colonial relationships after the undoing of colonial rule.
|The word discovery comes from the Latin term discooperire and refers to something found unexpectedly or during a search. Discover has often been used to describe new places found by Europeans, for instance during the 15th century, when several countries were colonising lands across North and South America. In using the word discovery to define these endeavours, Europeans were seeing the world through an Eurocentric lens, disregarding the experience of the people that had been living in those places for thousands of years.|
The epitome of the word discovery used in a Eurocentric manner is represented by the European colonization of the Americas, started after what was defined, for a very long time, as the “Discovery of America”.
The word explorer comes from the Latin term experitus and refers to a person that has acquired special knowledge or experience on a subject. In the context of colonial relationships, the term came to support a Eurocentric vision of knowledge that would dismiss local and indigeneous knowledge, teachings, tradition, and practices.
An example of “experts” offering an authoritarian and paternalistic attitude is provided in the 1982 journal article by John McCracken, “Experts and expertise in colonial Malawi”, in which agricultural experts showed to be out of their depth in applying their knowledge to the peculiar Malawian ecological conditions.
The word explorer comes from the Latin term explorare and refers to a person travelling to unknown places. Explorers were key figures in sustaining European colonialism and were commissioned to search for new trade routes, materials, and riches.
The word intrepid comes from the Latin intrepidus and refers to someone who is not alarmed despite threatening circumstances. In the context of colonial endeavours, the colonisers were seen as intrepid men who were bravely exploring wild lands (cfr. “Wild”).
The word native comes from the Latin nativus and refers to a person born in a particular place. During colonial endeavours, the word native was invested with meanings drawn from the colonial rhetoric to refer to local people that were considered inferior to the colonisers. Nowadays, the term can be used in Europe to support exclusionary and nationalistic political positions.
In this photograph taken by Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard in 1936, one of the locals is marked as “Native Assessor”. Native Assessors were employed to help the colonisers during the trials of local people.
The word pioneer comes from the Old French word paonier, meaning "foot-soldier". While in ordinary language the word refers to a person who is the first to do something, in the context of settler colonialism the word was used to define early settlers that could pave the way for further expeditions and colonial endeavours, disregarding the pre-existing way of life.
An example of use of the term pioneer in the context of settler colonialism can be found in the 1931 essay The pioneer fringe, where the author, Isaiah Bowman, defines a pioneer as a “a young man bent upon winning from the wilderness with strong hands and the hope of youth a homestead for himself and an inheritance for his children”.
Servant comes from the Old French servant and refers to a person that performs domestic duties for others. African domestic servants were widely used in European homes as part of a larger colonial project.
While the expression Stone Age refers to a long-lasting prehistoric period during which stone was predominantly used to produce tools, this expression can be used out-of-context and in a derogatory manner to describe civilisations that aren’t considered advanced or developed through the Western gaze.
An example of a colonialist way of using the expression “Stone Age” can be found in the film by Beatrice Blackwood A Stone Age People in New Guinea, following her fieldwork (1936–37) among the Anga people (Kukukuku) of the Upper Watut, Papua New Guinea.
The term traditional can assume a negative connotation when applied to non-Western contexts to describe social and cultural practices that are considered backwards.
During colonial rule, the word tribe was widely used in a pejorative manner to describe societies and groups considered non-complex in their configuration. Even today, the word usage leads to the reproduction of common stereotypes that associate a concept of primitiveness to certain geographical areas.
In a 1974 essay titled “Tribe and tribalism”, three renowned anthropologists recommended to their scientific community to stop using the word tribe, recognising its stigmatising nature and pejorative connotations associated with non-European peoples.
The word wild comes from the Old English wilde and refers to a uncontaminated or undomesticated natural state. The concept of wilderness is connected with the colonialist lexicon as it was used by colonisers that were unable to recognise local relationship with natural ecosystems. Therefore, wilderness became their way to describe what they saw as unsophisticated and underdeveloped countries to create a separation with the “modernised” Western countries, where nature was thought to be dominated.
Colonisers would disregard the local’s belief in supernatural and magical elements, and, in some circumstances, they even made them punishable offences and illegal by law. The locals’ practices were dismissed as witchcrafting and their practitioners as witch doctors. In doing so, colonisers reinforced their own vision of the world as commonsensical and the ones of the colonised as superstitious and naive.
An example of a local practitioner defined as witch doctor can be found in this photograph taken by the Italian Consolata Missionaries during their travels to East Africa in the early XX century.