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E-cyclopedia Friday, 27 November, 1998, 11:13 GMT
Refugee: today's playground insult?
In every age, schoolchildren have an armoury of words most calculated to hurt and humiliate each other.

The words change from generation to generation, but one thing usually stays the same: adults shudder with shame at the words they used as children.

Learning difficulties, cerebral palsy, Romanies: all terms now used respectfully where once euphemisms were abuse.

And now, it seems, playgrounds up and down the country are resounding with the latest taunt: Refugee.

An ethnic Albanian refugee woman and her child last month in camp near Pristina in Kosovo
The Refugee Council say there are 45,000 school-age refugee children in the UK, most of whom live in Greater London.

Through contacts with schools, education authorities and children themselves, it has become clear that the word refugee is standard playground abuse, a spokeswoman said.

Dr Tony McEnery, of the University of Lancaster's Department of Linguistics, who has compiled a huge database of modern English usage, says children and teenagers are "quite productive" in their use of abusive language.

In his study they tend to use terms which are not in themselves abusive, but take on an extra dimension when the group in question is stigmatised.

Study of the database indicates that as society's attitudes change, so do the terms children use as their "nuclear words" - especially harsh insults.

"You might have been able to insult someone on the grounds of physical disability in the past, but that's generally viewed by society now as being unacceptable," he says.

One illustration of this is the use of the word "spastic" as an insult. Dr McEnery's records show only two examples of its use.

Just a few years ago, it was such a common insult in playgrounds and elsewhere that the Spastic Society dropped the term altogether, changing its name to Scope.

The Refugee Council claims that hostile attitudes from politicians and tabloid newspapers towards "bogus" asylum seekers has stoked the abuse towards refugees.

It could also be possible that the word has been popularised among children by the popularity of the pop group the Fugees.

The band say their ancestral home is Africa, but their ancestors were made refugees when they went to the carribean.


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