Politically correct terms ‘maids’?

By Geraint Wong

SOCIETY is constantly changing, and language changes along with it.

Many of these changes are, naturally, in response to advances in technology. So terms such as ‘tweet’ and ‘surf’ have taken on fresh meanings; new words such as ‘blog’ have been created, and archaic ones such as ‘unfriend’ revived; ‘unlike’ has now become a transitive verb (and does not mean the same as ‘dislike’); and the ‘@’ symbol has been pulled back from the brink of extinction and propelled to the top of usage charts.

Another group of changes in language has arisen from greater sensitivity in society. Long gone are the days when people could say: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ Many have found, to their chagrin, that words can often cause greater hurt than sticks and stones.

This awareness gave birth to politically correct expressions to refer to groups of people often discriminated against or marginalised: ‘intellectually disabled’ instead of ‘retarded’; ‘hearing-impaired’ in place of ‘deaf’; ‘senior citizen’ rather than ‘old person’.

Many other examples of such terms can be found in the books that the movement spawned, such as James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and Once Upon A More Enlightened Time.

Job titles, too, have changed, for pretty much the same reason. Some positions now carry important-sounding names to boost the morale of their holders and reflect greater responsibilities. So, for instance, clerks are now mostly referred to as administrative assistants, and SBS Transit buses are driven by bus captains.

Another job whose title has undergone evolution is that of the domestic worker. In my grandparents’ day, these household employees, many of whom hailed from China, were simply called servants. Today, that term has acquired pejorative undertones, except perhaps when used of civil servants and public servants.

So female domestic workers are now often referred to as maids. But even this term is avoided by some people, who prefer the seemingly more sophisticated title ‘domestic helper’.

Indeed, from the neighbourhood coffee shop to the august chamber of Parliament, this term has become rather fashionable among Singaporeans.

What many don’t realise, however, is that it is in fact the wrong term. The correct phrase is ‘domestic help’.

The Collins English Dictionary defines ‘help’ as ‘a person hired for a job; an employee, especially a farm worker or domestic servant’, while Oxford Dictionaries Online states simply that a help is a domestic employee.

On the other hand, a helper is characterised as someone who helps another – and Macmillan Dictionary adds the qualification ‘especially without payment’.

Some of us will recall the film for which Octavia Spencer won this year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actress – its title was The Help, not The Helper.

A Google search reveals that the erroneous term ‘domestic helper’ is largely confined to websites from Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines; most other websites use the correct term ‘domestic help’ or its equivalents.

How the phrase came to be mangled is anybody’s guess, but it is hardly surprising, given Singaporeans’ penchant for doing just that – the local list of mangled phrases includes ‘parking lot’, ‘spoilt machine’ and ‘since young’. But let’s not be distracted by that.

What is more interesting is to consider the effect that the badly phrased title ‘domestic helper’ may have had on the mindset of a typical Singaporean.

A domestic helper, understood literally, is someone who helps out at home – it could be one’s spouse, child or relative.

And as my colleague John Lui has pointed out: ‘If you have ever seen children working in a restaurant or shop, or seen people work overtime for no extra pay in a family-owned company when all the others have left, you see the problem. Family members make sacrifices for one another.’ (‘Oh, what tension over the maid’s day off’; March 11.)

Could the use of the term ‘domestic helper’, then, have led many Singaporean employers to treat their maids as family members helping around the house and expect them to make sacrifices?

Could that be why so many Singaporeans have been worked up over the new rule granting maids a day off each week?

Perhaps, if employers all used the correct term ‘domestic help’ and treated their maids accordingly – as employees, just like those in any organisation or office – our domestic workers might be accorded greater dignity and we might hear fewer horror stories of maid abuse.

And we would have saved ourselves the embarrassment of one more mangled phrase.

This may seem like a far-fetched theory, but it’s entirely plausible. After all, if a change in job titles can boost an employee’s morale, why can’t it alter an employer’s mindset?

Change can often be a good thing, and the changes we encounter in language should be embraced, for they reflect how society is evolving and progressing.

But, for goodness’ sake, when we are changing the expressions we use, let’s be sure to learn the new ones right.



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