The power of language


The language we choose to use – about the issues we address every day

Language matters

It shapes the way we feel, think, act and react. It also has a physiological effect on our bodies which, in turn has an effect on all our vital organs.

Take a look at the two boxes on the left. Say the words in the left box out loud for 30 seconds. Then say the words in the right box out loud for 30 seconds. What difference can you feel?

Here we offer a small dip into the vast sociological, psychological and philosophical body of literature about how language has shaped, and continues to shape our lives, around the world and across the centuries. The importance of respectful language was enshrined in the Denver Principles, which were created to uphold the rights of people living with HIV back in 1983. We then wrote an article for JIAS in 2012(!) about how important respectful language is to us as women living with HIV.  An increasing number of HIV organisations, academics and health service providers are thankfully growing to recognise the effects that the language they use can have on what works – or doesn’t – in an effective and ethical response to HIV and AIDS. To see the articles available here, scroll down….

All of the programmes of work in which we are involved use language which is positive, affirming, solution-focused, forward- thinking and which builds on the active agency of those involved.

This has been reflected in, for example, the WHO (2017) Guideline on the SRHR of women living with HIV. This states:

“Acknowledge the importance of language: Positive, inclusive language creates new opportunities for advancement and collaboration, instead of exclusively focusing on ending existing problems. For example, discussing “promoting health” instead of “ending disease” can create opportunities to think about the next steps in health promotion, in addition to responding to concerns of ill health. SRHR programmes should use language that puts people ahead of disease, such as saying “people living with HIV” instead of “HIV-infected people” or “HIV-positive people”. HIV or AIDS should be used instead of HIV/AIDS, thereby disassociating the virus and the clinical syndrome. “Acquire” is a more neutral term than “infected” when referring to the transmission of HIV. Comprehensive prevention of “vertical transmission” can be used instead of saying “mother-to-child transmission” (or MTCT), to reduce possible blame that women living with HIV may experience. This is central to creating an environment that promotes SRHR.” (page 19-20)

It is also reflected in the UNAIDS-commissioned ALIV[H]E Framework which is available on the UNAIDS website.

“Why do we use the term ‘safety’ instead of ‘stigma and discrimination’? If we look at the other headings in this section we will see that they are framed as either positive or neutral. Stigma and discrimination, by contrast, are negative issues. We seek not just an end to stigma and discrimination, but also to replace them with something positive – described in this document as ‘safety’. Conventional research methods traditionally start with a problem statement, but recent neuropsychological research  suggests that we are more creative and productive thinkers when we focus on solutions – not on ‘what is our problem?’ but rather, ‘what is already working well in our lives? How can we build on our strengths to take this further? Where would we like to be and how can we reach this future place?” (extract from Box 3, page 14)


A selection of articles, presentations and other resources about language and HIV

If you have other articles that you know of that you would like to suggest for inclusion, please let us know!

February 2024

The Well Project has written a great article about this: Why Language Matters! Facing HIV stigma in our own words.

October 2023

Lancet editorial: Putting people first in communication about HIV. This article describes the People First Charter. See below for further details.

August 2023

Juan Michael Porter II interviews Dr Paul Volberding about language and stigma and how to change language amongst healthcare professionals for the better: Letting Go of HIV Stigma

May 2023

This study by Parisi et al: A Content Analysis of HIV-Related Stigmatizing Language in the Scientific Literature, From 2010-2020: Findings and Recommendations for Editorial Policy in the Health Communication Journal spells out how widespread stigmatising language use is.

April 2023

The Language of HIV” a Good Practice Guide. A powerful presentation by 4M Mentor Mother co-Founder, and Salamander Trust Trustee Angelina Nambia, which she gave to students on the University College London (UCL) Masters of Public Health degree course.

July 2021

Launch of the People First Charter website. This website, set up by Dr Laura Waters and colleagues, seeks: to promote person first HIV & Sexual Health language. Language matters. People living with or at risk of HIV experience stigma & discrimination and the wrong language perpetuates this.”

An article by Juan Michael Porter II, entitled: Stigmatizing Language Prevents People From Accessing HIV Care emphasises the consequences of stigmatising language on the health outcomes of people living with HIV.

July 2020

4M Advocacy Brief: From elimination of MTCT to ensuring our Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.In this brief we explain why shifting the narrative from ‘eMTCT’ to ‘eSRHR’ is such a critical part of improving the quality of care for women living with HIV across the perinatal period. The 3-page summary, is here. The full Advocacy Brief is here.

June 2019

A presentation by Salamander Trust Associate Angelina Namiba and 4M Project programme lead, at the National HIV Nurses Association (NHIVNA) 21st annual conference.

The guidance published by NHIVNA to which Angelina refers in her presentation.

A webpage from The Well Project about Why Language Matters: Facing HIV stigma in our own words. This includes a pdf presentation and a guide to preferred terminology.

January 2018

Stepping Stones Newsletter focusing on language Here are perspectives on our use of language in our work from our Stepping Stones colleagues around the world.

June 2017

Our use of language: the power of positive perspectives  This is the pdf of a webinar we held with our Stepping Stones facilitators around the world. It describes how we use language to describe at least five different things: people, situations, thinking, actions and how we feel.

September 2015

UNAIDS terminology guidelines“Language shapes beliefs and may influence behaviours. Considered use of appropriate language has the power to strengthen the global response to the AIDS epidemic.”

July 2015

HIV and AIDS: language and the blame game This is an article written in openDemocracy to challenge the militaristic language used in relation to HIV. It offers instead a caring, supportive language of nature and nurture.

June 2013

The Pillars and Possibilities of a Global Plan to Address HIV in Women and Their Children This is an article about a speech given at Women Deliver in Kuala Lumpur about the power of language in relation to the ‘Global Plan‘.

November 2012

Towards an HIV-free generation: getting to zero or getting to rights? A group of us wrote this article in the Reproductive Health Matters Journal in November 2012. This article highlights not only what language is used, but what principles guide global policy. It highlights how the right language and the right principles can shape or break policy.

July 2012

Language, identity and HIV: why do we keep talking about the responsible and responsive use of language? Language matters A group of us wrote this article in the Journal of the International AIDS Society in 2012.

June 1983

The Denver Principles were created to uphold the rights of ‘People with AIDS’, as clearly stated in the opening paragraph – putting people first from the outset. “We condemn attempts to label us as ’victims,’ a term which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ’patients,’ a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ’People With AIDS.’ “