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Sticks and Stones: What's in a Name?

by Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson 8.14.2022

What’s in a Name?

I have long believed that there is subliminal messaging in terms and labels that we use to describe others. Even many of us in the human services field casually use terms that may inadvertently cause harm.

Try this experiment: Think of each of the following words. Say the word and then close your eyes, asking yourself, what image comes to mind.

  • inmates,

  • ex-offenders,

  • at-risk children,

  • prisoners

  • homeless

  • single-parent homes

Be honest. What are the thoughts and images that came to mind? Think about the messaging conveyed when not clarifying content. Yes, I know it takes more words to say what you mean and mean what you say. However, it is worth it. Taking the extra time to clarify your content and context can provide human dignity and respect. The old saying, ‘Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” is sadly wrong. Names do hurt.

Try People First Language:

In an article, Boppre & Hart-Johnson (2019) entitled, ‘ Using person-centered language to humanize those impacted by the legal system’ my colleague and I argued that names such as “parolee,” and “felon,” are damaging and further advance the stereotypes and stigma associated with the legacy of prison and incarceration. When we continue to buy into and support the language, we decrease the chances of people being restored to wholeness and society.

Person-centered language means putting the person first before the label. For example, rather than say a homeless person try saying, a person who does not have a home. Gee whiz, can you hear the difference? The first leaves legacies and images in the mind of tent cities, while the others engender empathy. Let’s try a few more:

  • Residents of a prison (rather than inmates or prisoners)

  • Individuals returning home to society (versus ex-offender, ex-con, felon)

  • Children who are at risk for food insecurity, housing insecurity, developmental adversity

  • Families who do not have permanent housing (versus homeless)

  • Families (versus single-parent homes)

  • Children with parents in prison (rather than prisoner’s children)

So, as you consider describing the populations and our brothers and sisters around the world, consider how you label them. Names can and do hurt people.


An organization called, “Frame Works” believes that the way we frame our narratives does indeed shape how people respond. They posit that framing influences empathy, explanations, and even the quiet part that remains unstated, all sending powerful messages. They have an entire website devoted to helping people and organizations frame their messaging. Proper language can change minds, open doors, and most importantly, enhance the possibilities of improved lives. Check out their website: Framing 101 | FrameWorks Institute



Boppre, B., Hart-Johnson, A. (2019). Using person-centered language to humanize those impacted by the legal system.

AIAC White Paper 2019 Person-Centered Language
Download PDF • 244KB

Boppre B, Reed SM. “I’m Not a Number, I’m a Human Being:” A Phenomenological Study of Women’s Responses to Labeling. Feminist Criminology. 2021;16(2):191-215. doi:10.1177/1557085120953488

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