IN the Philippines, there is a class divide when it comes to the use of certain words and phrases.
It is not uncommon for an apparently “abnormal” person to be referred to by even the not-so-rich not as “special” but “retarded,” a description that you would easily associate with the jargon of the hoi polloi.
Then we hear people from the middle class saying “scar” (it’s “peklat” to the lower middle class), or “informal settlers” among the politically correct intellectuals and demographers, instead of “squatters” who are usually “illiterate,” not “no read, no write.”
The “other woman” whose name is mentioned in whispers is pointed out as a “kabit” in neighborhoods where you could be run over by a “kariton” without anyone even noticing, in contrast to when a “Mercedes” is the culprit.
The country’s media has played a significant role in planting in its audience’s consciousness seemingly harmless nomenclature that eventually make its way sometimes to notoriety, to the mortification of its inventor.
One such word that has cropped up recently is “bakwit,” apparently a Filipino-language bastardization of the English “evacuee” or “evacuate.”
“Bakwit” began surfacing in newspapers and on radio and television weeks after Marawi City in Lanao del Sur was besieged by the Maute terrorists.
The siege that started on May 23 gave rise to evacuees, mostly Maranao, according to reports, who had to be removed from their homes in the city for their own safety and brought to Iligan City in Lanao del Norte and other nearby provinces.
Non-government organizations, cause-oriented groups and leftist organizations would call those who are uprooted from their comfort zones “internally displaced persons,” not “evacuees” and more so not “bakwit.”
“Bakwit” strikes us as demeaning and condescending and betrays the class origin of those who invented the word.
Besides, it is used to apply to a minority in Philippine society who have been marginalized further by armed clashes between government troops and the terrorist group.
On Monday, we were taken aback by a picture that our photographer took that showed media relations officers of the Senate all smiles and posing with care packages for the Marawi evacuees but with some of the boxes marked “Bakwit.”
Could they not have written instead “For Marawi” or “For Our Muslim Brothers and Sisters”?
We are stumped for an appropriate equivalent for “evacuee” in Filipino but we certainly are not buying “bakwit,” which smacks of ethnic condescension and class bias.
“Malasakit” is a Filipino word that defies English translation, although “concern” is said to come close but not quite. But it is something that should be shown to the Maranao evacuees, for them to feel that their Filipino Christian brothers and sisters are with them in their hour of need.
The Western media once tried to call “rafters” those who were escaping armed conflict in their homeland by boarding rickety boats to sail across perilous waters, thus the word “rafters.”
Thankfully, the word died a natural death and it has not been roused from the grave even with today’s floods of refugees, not “bakwit,” from Iraq and Syria, as well as Myanmar from where come the Rohingya, Muslims who are persecuted in the former Burma.
Linggo ng Wika (Language Week) will be celebrated on August 13 to 19. It would be good for the event’s organizers to perhaps debate the harmlessness or insensitiveness of the word “bakwit.”
In the meantime, let us try to live with one definition of the word as a noun in English: “Evacuation is the immediate and rapid movement of people away from the threat or actual occurrence of a hazard.”