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Slave and Slavery vs. The Enslavement and Enslaved Person – Emancipating Semantics

...it is about time the United States emancipated the semantics of these terms and stopped playing racially linguistic games designed to dumb down, put to sleep, and gaslight the nation.



When people try to justify American slavery or enslavement, whether for academic research or casual conversation, they often rely on the argument that slavery has existed for thousands of years. However, this argument can make slavery seem less significant in history. Additionally, there are references and stories about white people being held as slaves throughout history, which can also diminish the impact of American slavery on African people who were forcibly brought to these shores many generations ago.


It should be evident that slavery was a significant issue in American history, especially considering its role in causing the Civil War. However, some liberal white Americans tend to shy away from discussing the cruelty of slave owners, even if they acknowledge the link between slavery and the war. Conversely, more Americans than commonly believed argue that the war was about states' rights, and they may choose to keep their opinions to themselves or express them openly. In an article in the Washington Post called, “Lots of Americans don’t think slavery caused the Civil War,”[1] John Sides discussed views held by most average Americans on the subject of slavery in the United States. In the article, he quoted John Kelly, chief of staff to former president Donald Trump who stated in an interview:

“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”[1]


This statement and others like it are immediate in glorifying the humanity of individuals responsible for enslavement and the War without discussing the inhumanity of those same people to the people in bondage, of whom there is no mention. The audacity in the statement, “lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War,” and any notion of “men and women of good faith on both sides” should send painful tremors into the souls of anyone thinking any discussion of the enslavement of humans was capable of compromise.


Rushing to amend Kelly’s statement as one belonging only to the military and not average Americans, Sides pointed to Post writers Greg Jaffe and Anne Gearan who reported that military officials took issue with Kelly’s remarks, and while “the product of a somewhat cloistered view of the conflict inculcated in military officers,” this confined view was not shared by the general public.[1]


Analyzing the status of opinions on the cause of slavery in the U.S. at the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in 2011, Sides cited a number of polls that asked what the general population thought started the war. According to the Pew poll, when asked what their impression of the cause of the Civil War was, 48% said states' rights and 38% said slavery. The CBS/NYT poll placed 50% on states’ rights and 37% on slavery. The 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll was even higher, at 53% on states’ rights and 37% on slavery. The CNN/ORC poll approached the question differently. Rather than impressions of the cause of the war, they asked what they thought was the reason for seceding from the Union. Within this context, 54% stated slavery as the cause for secession, and 42% chose states' rights.[1] According to those surveys, the average American does not consider slavery to be the main cause of the country's civil war.


It is highly probable that generations of educational indoctrination have influenced the way people think about certain topics. When it comes to the history of this country, much of what we learn is through educational institutions that have been steeped in racism and white supremacism. Additionally, it's possible that white Americans may not view the term slavery as seriously as they should, which would explain why most do not have a strong emotional connection to its history other than a sanitized view of a glorified Dixie South seemingly gone with the wind. On the other hand, if the true horrors of slavery were better understood by all, particularly Black people, then perhaps they would be less likely to broadly dismiss its significance.

Among 21st century scholars and others who discuss the semantics of these terms, using the terms enslaved persons and The Enslavement might even be considered an act of political correctness, akin to where other terms with connotations of fairness rather than crudeness are often relegated. The debate continues. Some attempts at changing the dynamics through the redefinition of these terms are being made. On websites such as the National Park Service’s page discussing the Underground Railroad and the Language of Slavery, they are changing the way the two terms and others are expressed. As a note to readers, they explain how they are in the process of revising their page, The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Programto reflect accurate and contextual ways to talk about slavery, freedom, and the Underground Railroad.”[2] In their definition of terms, they include both terms but are careful to describe them more accurately to reflect their connotations. For example, they define slave as:


“…a commonly used term to describe an enslaved African American, but one that suggests that the individual’s identity was more fundamentally as property than as a human. It can also suggest that the person accepted their enslavement as a definition of their own identity. Additionally, it leaves out the presence of an enslaving individual or group whose ability of enforcement through violence backed the system of slavery. The National Park Service uses slave only when necessary in a historical context as part of a quote, preferring enslaved person as a more descriptive, complete choice.”[2]

They describe an enslaved person rather than a slave in terms of how the former places the onus on forced bondage and brutality, family separation of loved ones, and death on the perpetrators of such events more effectively than the latter.[2]


During a thorough examination of grammatical elements for this essay, it was discovered that the suffix "ry" changes the stem word "slave" into a state or condition. However, this suffix is not sufficient for describing an event in history. This is because a state or condition does not describe an action or event and can be interpreted as a state of being for the slave individual.


Vocabulary.com defines the word slavery and slave as coming from the “Latin sclava, meaning ‘Slavonic captive,’ referring to the 9th-century slavery of Slavonic people”[3] and first appeared as the word, sclave in English around 1290. The spelling in its original Slavic form, slave, first appeared in English in the 1500s.[4] The Bible is among some of the first historical sources complete with stories of slavery and people in bondage, escaping bondage, and being placed back into bondage.


This essay, however, is not about the origins of slavery or the reasons why the nation went to war, nevertheless, understanding the origins and evolution of terminology is crucial to appreciating its significance in modern history. Delving into the semantics of slavery can help clarify its relevance in today's educational context.


What makes slavery different than The Enslavement?” How significant is the use of the initial capped “The,” the prefix “En,” and the suffix “ment” to change the context, connotation, and core comprehension of the event? Is it even necessary to include The to further validate the way the term is expressed? To begin, it is important to understand the significance of these grammatical elements.


The APA gives an initial capped “T” the hard and fast recommendation that a capital T is always used if The is the first word in a title. Conversely, there are companies whose T in The is capitalized no matter where it appears in a sentence because it is part of the proper name and It seems to indicate a special quality, like something exceptional, different than other companies that might have similar names or descriptions. When reading the initial capped “The,” whether in a title or as part of a proper name, its use has the tendency to elevate whatever it is being used in. When used in a title, it portends virtually everything that will be contained after it. This is important to remember.


“En” is defined as a prefix:


“to cause (a person or thing) to be in” the place, condition, or state named by the stem; more specifically, “to confine in or place on” (enshrine; enthrone; entomb); “to cause to be in” (enslave; entrust; enrich; encourage; endear); “to restrict” in the manner named by the stem, typically with the additional sense “on all sides, completely” (enwind; encircle; enclose; entwine).[5]

With a stem word such as slave, It is no stretch of anyone’s imagination to see how important an assignment of the prefix, “en” is to the root word, “slave.” When “ment” is added as a suffix, it means an indication “of a state, condition, or quality, or the result or product of an action.”[6] So, what do all these grammatical elements mean when organized in a cohesive structure with their meanings?


It explains The Enslavement as the title of an action and event, important by virtue of the special quality, something exceptional and different; completely heinous by its act of causing a person to be in, to confine or place on, and to restrict in the manner named by the stem, typically with the additional sense on all sides, completely, and as an indication of a state, condition or quality or the result or product of an action. It indicates that T•he En•slave•ment and en•slaved as a term holds much more significance than the mere use of the term, Slave•ry and slave for the millions of people commodified and dehumanized in the diaspora of enslavement in the western hemisphere and the United States in particular. Clearly, the term, “slavery” doesn’t describe the condition, or the quality of human life destroyed by actions and events in history in the same way, and why it is important not to trivialize The Enslavement as just another event in the history of the world the same way slavery is denoted and connoted today.


Slate Magazine’s 2015 article entitled, “Slave or Enslaved Person?” by staff writer, Katy Waldman examined the use of the terms, discussing the disagreement among scholars on its passive use to symbolize the past, or as a term that aggressively seeks to illustrate the magnitude of atrocities of racialized bondage in the United States. Quoting someone described as an academic on a message board of humanities and social sciences discussions, Waldman conveyed:


Slave is reductive and static and does not accurately reflect reality. Enslaved individuals are … complex human beings.”[7]

In other words, the academic was saying the term, slave was a crude way of describing a much more complicated people and reducing the human beings involved into a state of inhumanity, a rudimentary definition of people as a state of their being rather than as a state of institutionalized bondage and labor. In essence, shrinking an entire life experience “to a nonhuman noun was to reproduce the violence of slavery on a linguistic level.”[7]


Is it merely a matter of semantics or is there something more nefarious at play? Given the nature of racialized language in the United States where so-called benign words or statements are often euphemized for the comfort of white folk and to hide the malicious intent directed at Black folk, it is not difficult to understand why the subject is discussed and debated as to the preferred usage of the terms and typically left to scholars to hash out. Perhaps the reason most Black people relegate slavery to the dust heap of history with no consequential inferences to the present is because of the function of the term linguistically as inconsequential.


Perhaps the connotation surrounding the word slavery or slave triggers the deprivation of humanity associated with the people it is designed to describe rather than what they experienced. In a nation where white supremacism demands its ideology to regard slavery euphemized as just a peculiar institution, the term, The Enslavement replaces the personhood of the slave with the actions of the people who perpetrated the atrocities., Just like systemic Racism, white supremacist ideology considers it better to convolute the terms to pointless debate rather than own the responsibility for this particular action and event of bondage and dehumanization in modern history.


Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether slavery existed for ions, nor does it matter that white people were also slaves. In the United States, it makes more sense that there existed human beings brought over from their native country and enslaved, dehumanized, punished, and commodified, and it is about time the United States emancipated the semantics of these terms and stopped playing racially linguistic games designed to dumb down, put to sleep, and gaslight the nation.




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