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Fat, obese or overweight? Has there been a change?


The BBC just put out an article covering a recent MP report about the use of ‘weight neutral language‘ which advises doctors and other public health workers to stop using the words fat, obese or overweight. Rather, doctors should instead use more ‘positive language’, including encouraging people to ‘get to a healthy weight’ and so on. While I think that words like fat can be hurtful, I’m less convinced that obese and overweight are, particularly since they’re part of the vocabulary of health professionals, but then, so was spastic once upon a time (which Lynn Murphy has written about here), so it’s entirely possible that it is offensive to people (as was suggested by a University of Pennsylvania research project in the journal Obesity which reported that people found the term obesity offensive. I think I found the article here,but the Nature website is being all screwy and I can’t check it to make sure it’s the right one or not).

Overlooking the issue of whether this recommendation will have any actual impact on weight issues in the UK, I noticed that there was a comment by Ian Brookes (a consultant editor at the Collins dictionary) which said:

“Statistically, there are no signs people are using words like fat, obese and overweight less frequently. There is a relative increase in their use, but that could be because there is a more general awareness of obesity and the dangers of it. There is no evidence of any change in the use of offensive synonyms like chubby, lardy and podgy. There is an increase in vocabulary relating to the whole commercial and medical side of obesity, with new words such as bariatric, gastric band and stomach stapling. But a number of facetious terms have also come up more. We’ve recently added the phrase generation XL – which leads on from generation X. There is not much evidence weight-neutral terms are being used, but then it is relatively new. Fattist first comes up in 1974, peaks around 1992 and then goes into decline.”

Now, I’ve got no idea whether this is true or not, so I decided to check it using Google Ngram (caveat – I’ve never done any sort of corpus linguistic work so I’m not sure if this is even the right way to go about it. Feel free to post in the comments if it’s not. And I’m acutely aware that this really isn’t ‘corpus linguistics’). Searching the English corpus between 1800 – 2008 with a smoothing factor of five, the results were as follows.

For the ‘neutral words’ obese and overweight, there appears to be a slight rise over time, with obese dipping between 1980 and 2000 before rallying up until 2008. 

Fat, on the other hand, seems to be relatively stable over the last twenty or so years, with a slight rise between 2000 and 2008. 

Gastric band and bariatric surgery have, unsurprisingly, been on the increase since about 1995, with stomach stapling (one of earliest surgeries for encouraging weight loss) increasing in use from 1980 onwards, which is when it was invented.

Lastly, chubby has been on the rise since about 1980, although it does go back all the way to 1800s (I’m not sure of its earliest attestation, but it’s late and I can’t be bothered checking the etymological dictionaries). 

Interestingly, NGram doesn’t give any results for Generation XL, although this is most likely to do with the fact that it’s really really new. Webcorp does better much here, although I’ve not quite figured out how to get it to spit out descriptive statistics.

So what does all of this tell us? Well, for words like fat, it does appear to be the case that its rate of use is slowing down, countering (at least to some extent) the claim made by Ian Brookes. The other, more neutral, words do appear to be increasing in use, but whether that’s because of more awareness of the issues or because there’s more media chatter about it is debatable. More offensive words like chubby do seem to be used more, which is interesting given that Brookes says there hasn’t been a change in use of these kinds of words. Whether he means that its meaning hasn’t changed or whether people aren’t using it less is unclear, but there is some evidence at least to suggest that it’s being used more often.

– The Social Linguist

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