Word watch: Boat people

Australian National Dictionary editor AMANDA LAUGESEN gets a grip on boat people.

What's in a name? In late 2013, not long after the Coalition won power, Federal Immigration Minister Scott Morrison changed the policy of calling people who arrived in Australia by boat from Irregular Maritime Arrivals - the preferred terminology of the Labor government - to Illegal Maritime Arrivals.

Critics quickly condemned the use of such a label for people who were seeking asylum in Australia and who had arrived by boat.

The Canon of St. Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne, Stephen Ames, decried the use of such dehumanising labels as well as the implication that such people were presumed to be 'illegal', but Scott Morrison defended his rejection of what he considered 'politically correct language'.

The debate over Australia's policies on refugees is reflected in debates over the language that is used to describe policies, people and actions.

The use of terminology such as Illegal Maritime Arrival, abbreviated in government documents to IMA, is indicative of the jargon often used by government.

But these are just the latest in a range of terms that have been used over the years.

The first was boat people.

First used of refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, this was a transferred use of the much older sense of boat people, 'a community of people who live solely or mainly on boats'.

These refugees from Vietnam fled on a variety of boats, many barely seaworthy, and sought refuge in countries such as Australia and the United States.