Save “Battered” for Fish Sticks and Chicken Tenders: It’s Time for a Domestic Violence Language Upgrade

Lily Casura, MSW
Jul 24, 2019 · 6 min read

It’s so weird to me that in 2019 we still use a word, “battered,” whose first known usage was in 1593, as such a common descriptor within the domestic violence/intimate partner violence space. There are “battered women,” “battered women’s shelters,” offenders who are known as “batterers,” and so on. But what does this language convey, and is it time for an upgrade?

Years ago, we used to talk about “connotative” and “denotative” meanings of words and their symbolic power, thanks to linguist S.I. Hayakawa and his colleagues. Denotative is the clinical, actual dictionary definition of a word — no misinterpretations intended or implied — while connotative is the various ways the word is used and understood in real life, the associations we make with the word both good and bad, which often convey a sense or senses different from the word’s original meaning. Connotations trump denotations every time, because we connect with them more viscerally. They become unconscious shorthand, a verbal currency that we trade in that affects our listeners in ways beyond what the words actually mean.

But back to “battered.” It’s become a word we associate more with fish sticks and chicken tenders than victims of domestic violence, but the word means “beaten,” “damaged,” “used up” and “shabby.” It’s only one letter away from “tattered,” after all. And it’s sometimes associated with that way to breach medieval walls, the “battering ram.” So why are we still using it today?

Experts recognize that there are so many ways individual victims of domestic violence are aggressed and transgressed that “battering” (a physical beating) is only one aspect of it. Physical assaults may be the most common, but they’re far from the only way domestic violence manifests. There’s injury and death from use of weapons, which doesn’t involve beating, slapping or punching. There’s verbal, emotional and psychological abuse. There’s economic injury. There’s withholding medical care. There’s sexual assault with and without “battering.” There’s creepy and abusive stalking. These are all forms of intimidation, violence, coercion and control that don’t rely on brute force, but still manage to work powerfully against a victim.

And then there are the other victims of domestic violence — family members including children and seniors who may be present during an event, other bystanders and witnesses including coworkers. So many people affected by domestic violence, even if they’re not the direct victim. (When it comes to domestic violence homicides, these witnesses are often killed or seriously injured during the event, or traumatized by it if they survive).

The lifetime impacts of domestic violence are enormous — not just long-ranging economic impact, but also psychological. After the fact, more than half of women survivors of domestic violence — in fact, up to 85% — suffer from PTSD, from two-thirds to three-quarters experience depression, and up to three-quarters experience anxiety, according to statistics Hind Benjoullon, M.D. provided on social media.

And let’s not forget the children. A white paper on best practices for domestic violence prosecution authored by the Women Prosecutors Section of the National District Attorneys Association in 2017 noted that:

“Violence committed in front of family members, particularly children, can have physical, developmental and psychological ramifications on those who witness the violence or try to intervene.”

They added that:

Recent research has documented high rates of domestic violence perpetration and victimization in the lives of children growing up in domestic violence homes. In a 2013 study by Sam Houston University, researchers tracked children growing up in domestic violence homes for 20 years. Children from 78.6% of the families became perpetrators by the age of 21. Children from 75% of the families became victims of domestic violence by the age of 21.

Want to suggest that those children **aren’t injured** by domestic violence, even if they’re not beaten (aka, battered) themselves? We need language that’s more accurate, up-to-date — and inclusive of all trauma’s impacts.

Just using terminology like “battered” marginalizes the situation and survivors. Care to support your local “battered women’s shelter?” How many ways can you unpack what’s being said there? Domestic violence involves more than battering, it affects more than women, and shelter isn’t always what survivors either want or need.

Domestic violence is serious, it’s all-too-frequently deadly, and hazardous in multiple ways to those it affects. Maybe continuing to use this outdated language to describe it contributes to the unconscious “othering” we do on so many issues, where we have a pronounced tendency to look at (technically, down on) those who go through whatever issue it is (like homelessness, eviction, substance abuse, etc.) as somehow “less than” or fundamentally “different from” ourselves.

A Google Trends search done recently shows no other term for domestic violence even comes close in popularity over time, since Google started recording searches. Screen grab by the author.

And let’s face it, along with being inaccurate, the terminology around “battering” isn’t even popular anymore. Not in the U.S., not even worldwide in the English-speaking world, thanks to a search conducted recently on Google Trends, which takes a look at a term’s popularity since the search giant first started keeping track. As you can see, when it comes to the domestic violence arena, there’s only one consistently popular term — and it isn’t intimate partner violence either, although that may be more precise.

It wasn’t until I tried to trace the origins of the “battered” association with domestic violence that I learned how recent it was — less than 50 years ago! — that the first domestic violence shelter was established.

(There’s lots more to this story, including the history of how long it took to change laws allowing husbands to beat their wives **for corrective purposes** both in the U.S. and in the U.K.) But apparently the first shelter was created by a woman in England, and it was initially called a “refuge,” which has a nice, poetic ring to it: “a shelter or protection from danger or distress,” “a place that provides shelter or protection,” and “something to which someone has recourse in difficulty,” all part of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition. (And without any confusing or off-putting connotative meanings, either.) The idea quickly spread to the U.S., and there have been domestic violence shelters here ever since — although too many of them are literally still called “battered women’s shelters,” often in their actual name.

A recent Google image search for “battered” results in only breading techniques, mostly for fish, in the first few hundred results, making an argument for why it’s out-of-date as language to denote domestic violence.

So it’s 2019. Might we not want to reserve our use of “battered” to the common breading technique for fish sticks and chicken tenders , and upgrade our language to refer more accurately to the problem at hand? In fact, let’s just retire this outdated language altogether. Continuing to use it is simply not doing us — or awareness about the problem — any good.

Lily Casura, MSW

Written by

Focused on using data as a tool in research and policy decisions. IWMF grantee. NASW-TX and Tableau Public award winner. UTSA, Harvard honors grad.

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