If you change the label of a concept, is the context forming the underlying concept changed as well — or is the concept always the same no matter the name?

Twenty years ago if you were a “child of divorce” you were branded in the community as a “child from a broken home.” That’s a pretty heavy label to stick on a young kid.  Not only is the home broken but — by association of the semiotic — the child is damaged as well.

Being “from a broken home” was never a good thing, it was never an honor, and the phrase unfairly condemned the child with a chaining to immoral parents. I have recently been hearing a new label that appears to have finally, if only colloquially, replaced the harsh “from a broken home” label — and that new phrase is — “a child from a single mother.”

Now, if we accept the notion that as a society progresses and enlightenment abounds, and newer, kinder, labels are created to replace harsher ones, my question becomes this: Does being “from a single mother” — even if she’s divorced — have less moral condemnation and pointed bearing in the community today than yesterday’s meme of being “from a broken home?” If yes, how did this change propagate — if not, why not?

Can you think of other new labels created to replace older brandings that may not really be kinder — or more morally acceptable — than past common usage in society?


  1. Go back one step ……….. to “being born out of wedlock” and the really harsh connotations of being the bastard child.
    I was born in the days when it was referred to as such – at one time I wore it as a badge of pride – people would call me the B word – and I would reply yes I am – it says so on my birth certificate – always used to take the wind out of their sails.
    I think the change has come about because of sheer numbers – it is easy to take the moral high ground when you are discussing an unfortunate minority – when that label applies to 40% plus of the population it is not so easy.
    We have done the same with words of *colour* and race. Nigger, coon, wog, gollywog are no longer acceptable – even the term coloured in not acceptable in some places and the term *black* is.
    We also do the same with the language of war – the whole *shock and awe* sounded so much more upbeat than total all out attack on the entire population of Baghdad.
    As to whether it is morally acceptable or not – that all depends on your own personal morals.
    I think it is wrong to stigmatise children for the errors/failings/mistakes of their parents.
    I think it is wrong to fluff the reality of war, which is a horrible harsh brutal business that should not be glorified.

  2. Hi Nicola —
    I’m not sure if “born out of wedlock” is the same as being from a “broken home” in that children without married parents has always been condemned as a threat to society.
    The “broken home” label appears to be a crushing penalty for an innocent child who, at one time at least, was legitimate and unbroken in the eyes of the law and when the parents broke their covenant with society, the child in process, was shattered as well.
    The “from a single mother” label seems have a dual application that covers divorces and never-marrieds and it does seem to, for some reason, have less sting than the phrase you mention and the “broken home” label.
    It will be interesting to watch how history treats “shock and awe” as a label. I see “shock and awe” more as a scatological bandage against the reality of “blood and fury” — just as “sanitation engineer” is the placebo for “garbage man.”

  3. Let me start by giving an emotional response, so that I can get it off my chest….I HATE labels!
    Let’s take the “Broken Home” label from yesteryears. Yes, I may be from a home where a divorce has occurred (which in fact I was), but that does not mean the home is “broken”. In fact with a divorce, it may have become a very whole home . And for those homes where a divorce has not occurred, who’s to say that the home is not “broken” and hidden. This is just one small example of why I think labels are so meaningless. I am not naive though and so I know that not many people see the world as I do, and so at their worst, labels can even be dangerous.
    So your actual question was:

    If you change the label of a concept, is the context forming the underlying concept changed as well

    And based on my outburst, I would have to say that for me, the answer is no. A label is a label is a label. It is a word. It doesn’t change anything.
    If anything, changing a label indicates that society has changed their view of the concept already. Divorce will always be divorce. And there will always be hurt involved. But what has changed is that society has become more accepting of it. So I think the change of perception has happened already, to enough people anyway, to cause a swing or a tip, and then only the label changes.

  4. In the UK “born out of wedlock” is very much the forerunner of *single mother* – but I agree there are two distinct groups here single mothers that have never married ….. and those that have and are newly single through divorce /widowhood etc.
    “Single (unmarried) mothers” are still singled out in the UK as feckless, irresponsible and the cause of all ills in society.
    And we have a new collective term for them in this country – “one parent families”

  5. Nicola, I’m not sure that single mothers are singled out in the UK as being the cause of all ills. Certainly not by the government and I’d say there are more single mothers out there than there would be without the current policies.
    When benefits are greater with only one parent in the house it doesn’t exactly encourage lasting relationships. It also allows the genuinely feckless (can you be feckful?) to take advantage of the rules – that’s where the negative perception comes from.
    The bottom line is that, apart from a sad few who probably deserve the reputation, and worse, most single parents are just trying to bring up their kids as well as they know how.
    Incidentally in Sweden it’s also pretty easy to split up even when there’s a kid involved, but at least the government doesn’t provide incentives to do so.

  6. natzgal —
    Labels are the hallmarks of power as Foucault argued: You have the ability to name and re-name as you wish. History is pocked with re-naming and re-labeling and it is a fascinating trend to watch unfold as cities lose their identities and minorities gain political power.
    We may want labels to be meaningless — but they are, indeed, powerful cudgels used to change history, to mark people, and to forever separate us from each other.
    The one power that ordinary people have in naming something of consequence is providing the labels for the children. That naming process is often historic, thought out, and a predictive of future wants and behaviors. When you name your child, every parent is king and queen.
    There was a necessary historic value in labeling children “bastards” in antiquity because those children were the greatest threat to family, land, and prosperity — and the fear that the “bastard child” would one day show up and stake a claim to the family fortune was a common concern in the ongoing Age of Promiscuity. By disincluding blood by criminalizing the behavior of the parents, the child — it was hoped — was forever ostracized and stricken from the familial core as a full-blooded owner in the propagation of the family name.

  7. Nicola —
    There was a time in the USA when “single mother” was a terrible label — but today it seems to be accepted and is less morally corrupt but I’m not sure why.
    I guess it is probably due to intentionally fatherless families where, say a lesbian couple decides to have children, or a famous star wants to raise a child alone and self-impregnates with the seeds of the sperm donor. The media celebrates the miracle births and the rest of society nods and goes back to playing video games.
    I think the idea of “the bastard child” is still a powerful meme in any community and is still seen as a threat to the societal core: Asking “Who’s Your Daddy?” that gets a response of, “Could be anybody!” is a phrase that strikes fear in the social core and the wants of private personal property and familial endowments.

  8. Mike —
    The opposite of “feckless” is “feck.”

    Etymology: Middle English (Scots) fek, by shortening & alteration from Middle English 1effect
    1 Scotland a : the greater share : MAJORITY — usually used with the (the feck of the town council didn’t fancy his backers — John Buchan) b : PART, PORTION (took the best feck of a year) (sold the best feck of the litter)
    2 Scotland : VALUE, WORTH (no feck would come from it)
    3 Scotland : a number or quantity especially when large (a whole feck of them came)

  9. David,
    I know labels are powerful. Probably even to me on a subliminal level. That is why I dislike them so much. They ascribe character and traits without giving the whole picture, very subtly without the average joe in the street really understanding that.
    I come from a country, South Africa, where they are exactly in the process of doing what you describe.

    History is pocked with re-naming and re-labeling and it is a fascinating trend to watch unfold as cities lose their identities and minorities gain political power.

    Except in our case, it was the majority which gained the political power. Suddenly Transvaal (the province I lived in) becomes Gauteng (one of many such examples in SA). But from my perspective nothing had really changed. History doesn’t just get wiped out just because someone changes a name.
    Concepts don’t just change because the label is changed.
    My kids don’t feel like they have another mom, just because I married their dad and I now have a label called step-mom. It may be a fact. But they don’t feel it. And I guess I put a lot of credence to feelings 🙂
    From writing this, I’ve come to this, that changing a label does indicate intention at least.

  10. natzgal —
    I appreciate you weeding through this topic with us and using precise examples from the history of your life to enlighten the topic.
    I agree labels do not change the underlying context of the idea — but why then are labels so nimbly used by the powerful if they aren’t changing anything?

  11. David…
    The powerful add/change a label and most people blindly follow, because that is what they are told to do. And then there are those who don’t think about it at all and get swept up with the blind. And suddenly a mass change in perception occurs. But the smart know that the underlying concept hasn’t changed, only the way in which it is viewed. And for the powerful, I think that’s what they want. It’s the perception they want changed, hoping it will change the underlying concept. But it very rarely does, IMHO.
    (BTW….I don’t think I am expressing myself very well here 🙂 And I don’t have the answers, only my ill-formed opinion).

  12. I think you’re making a lot of sense, natzgal, and that’s the core of the issue today: Labels don’t change meaning, but the masses will go along with the re-naming AND the pretend meaning change because they are fearful not to and that is precisely what Karl Rove and company learned from history and they successfully translated it so killing our troops is supporting our troops and saving Iraq from Saddam means we give Iraq to Iran. It is madness pretending to be policy, but history is a powerful teacher in how to sway public opinion by relabeling to rebalance in order to pretend to change meaning.

  13. David, in most Asian conservative society single mother, unmarried mother, divorcee, child from broken home and child out of wedlock are generally spoken in the same sentence. So, you can imagine how traumatic this is. Thats the reason why most single mothers i.e. like moi will avoid to discuss a lot of our personal backgrounds when talking to new-found friends here. Child from broken homes are seen as naughty and out of control. The closest example I get is a lot closer to home – my daughter. Anytime she made any teenage mistake in school (shes 17), she will be labelled as not stabled. Now you know why I have issues with her Headmistress. Thank God this is her final year there. Does me being a single mom and she came broken family make her any less stable?
    I cant think of any new labels at the moment, David. All I know is, labelling is bad – old or newly concocted ones. They have the same meaning.

  14. Hi David,
    I think when a label comes back with a new name it brings a certain level of tolerance/acceptance with it.
    Some take it with an open mind, some see it with a skeptic curiosity and some are just neutral about the concept.
    But, the connotation stays there – very much.

  15. Hanie —
    I am the product of a “broken home” and it was always strange to be labelled with that lousy name because the home was broken so early in my life — within days — that I have only known the “broken” life:
    I feel for you and your daughter and you certainly are smart to realize the cultural values surrounding you and how you must help protect your child in a crowd of finger-pointers. Best luck to you both!

  16. Hi Katha!
    Yes, labels are a fascination — sometimes they can be a good thing like the renaming of Calcutta back to Kolkata to reflect truer historic and cultural roots and to rid the current culture of the lingering aftereffects of British Imperialism.

  17. Interestingly enough it seems that being the child of a single mother is a compliment nowadays. “Wow, look how amazingly he has done for himself – see what the child of a single mother can do?” Senator Obama has it mentioned about him in a praising tone as well.

  18. It is an interesting change, Gordon. When I was growing up a single mother was looked upon as a woman who could not get a man and it was a mark of shame to be a “gay divorcee” sleeping around with married men even if you weren’t because everyone thought you were.
    I’m not sure if the removal of the stigma from single motherhood today is a good thing or not. Does a lack of societal lambasting against moral decay encourage young girls to want to have babies sooner with or without a man? The law and society’s values are still set up to favor families and not individuals — and tying children to both parents is a bit of a safety net for the child’s welfare and that’s why the courts are so determined to get both mother and father in the arena in some responsible way to pay for what they created.

  19. Hi David,
    At the same time, half of the world still recognizes the former name and the new name brings back the tough “memory” too.
    Re-labeling is not always smooth like an “old wine in a new bottle” – I guess!

  20. There is always a danger in re-naming things, Katha, because some people will flock to the new label while others will always use the old one.
    People love to play with their own names. William becomes Billy. Barry becomes Biff. Chris becomes Oliver. Some even go to court to change their label to create a better end effect.

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