As the name suggests

In “An Etymology of Slum Names”, Göran Dahlberg explores the terminology used for informal settlements around the world. Most are prefixed with “poor, dirty and filthy” and only a couple of exceptions hold a positive connotation. For example, Sri Lanka’s informal settlements have two contrasting names– “watta” meaning garden and “palpath” meaning shanty settlements. Cambodia calls them “Samnong Anatepetai” which is anarchic settlements and one of the words in Malaysia is “Hak Milik” — rights owned by the people. In some cases the terms — explicit or metaphoric, describe cramped, dark and hopeless places, like Nigeria’s “ta’n l’ese” which means whose leg is that? or South Africa’s “UmKhuku” meaning chicken coop. A few of the terms from Dahlberg’s research are illustrated below.

Informal illustrations

Terms for informal settlements. Source: Göran Dahlberg, “An Etymology of Slum Names”. Illustrations: Author


In the context of International Cooperation, Alan Gilbert in the “The Return of the Slum: Does Language Matter” (2007) strongly contests the usage of the word slum. In addition to the homogeneity the word lends to informal settlements across the world, Gilbert unravels how the term contributes to stigma against informal settlements, which in turn influences the discourse and action taken by authorities, NGOs, donors and media. In many cases, slum rehabilitation takes place top-down, and considers demolition or even relocation as an obligatory passage point. While terminology is only a part of the whole, it holds immense power in producing stereotypes and outcasts that may consequently contribute to the elimination of urban pluralities. A step further, Gilbert advocates for replacing international development campaign slogans like “slum-free” by terms such as “in search of a better shelter”, which suggest progression, incremental changes and recognize urban housing complexities.