Posted by: Corri van de Stege | May 20, 2008

On Words

As I’m cycling away on my usual listening post (exercise bike) this morning Radio 4 has an interesting report on the difference between ‘asylum’ and ‘sanctuary’ and how the word ‘asylum seeker’ has now got such negative connotations that there is an attempt to weed it out in favour of ‘sanctuary’.  I just wonder, would a change of word really have that affect, i.e. everyone is suddenly feeling much kinder towards people looking for refuge?  I doubt it somehow.  The word ‘mental hospital’ replaced the phrase ‘lunatic asylum’ in the past, and yes, it probably does have a kinder ring to it. 

I find this an interesting debate also in the light of the language writers use when they write their stories and novels.  As James Wood pointed out, there is the language used by a character, there is the language used by the writer and then there is the ‘public’ language, that used at the time and in the setting that the story takes place. 



  1. In my view it is the continuous use of a word that ends up by giving it a pejorative meaning. In the long run “mental hospital” will also be pejorative.

    Asylum? Sanctuary? I’d say the latter has religious connotations, which may not be acceptable for many.

  2. Jose: according to the dictionary, sanctuary is actually the first meaning of ‘asylum’… the difference is I think that asylum is protection for those pursued by the law. Historically, asylum referred to institutions (any) that offered shelter and support to destitutes, especially mentally ill people.
    But as you say, the meaning of sanctuary (in that same dictionary) is ‘a holy place’, a church or a temple….

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