Missing words

“Where has the spirit gone in the social services? For too long we have suppressed words of spirit and restricted our speech to the lifeless jargon of our professions.”

Gord Tulloch and Sarah Schulman [1]

There’s a beautiful book called ‘The lost words’ [2]. The book was created in response to the removal of everyday nature words from a children’s dictionary. The words were deleted because they were no longer being used enough by children to justify their inclusion. Words like acorn, bluebell, kingfisher and bramble. Words lost to children’s vocabulary.

I write a lot about words we use too much in social care. The words that dehumanise and other: case, service user, vulnerable. The words that blame: complex, challenging, hard to reach, difficult to engage. The words that sum up our transactional, sorting office approach: screen, triage, signpost, assess, refer, process, pathway, placement.

The words that make me go hmmm…

Our vocabulary is awash with these words. I cringe whenever I hear them and read them.

But what’s maybe even more heart-breaking is the words that are missing.

The words that are largely absent from our practice.

The lost words of social care.

This blog post is about some of those words.


Anticipation, desire, joy, passion, pleasure, friendship, laughter, tears, touch, familiarity, comfort, heartache, grief. Love comes in all shapes and sizes. Searching for, finding, being with, and remembering the people and things that we love are essential elements of good lives, well lived.

But there’s no mention of love in our legislation. Our manuals don’t mention romance. We spend our time focusing on the shadows. Abuse. Neglect. Risk. Danger. We have safeguarding procedures and risk assessments, but no guidance on relationships, no policies on love. We describe family and friends as ‘next of kin’, ‘representatives’, ‘appropriate individuals’. There’s no category for ‘lover’. There’s no box to tick for ‘soulmate’.

We have to talk more about love.


Don’t we all want to live in the place we call home? Not in a setting or a placement or a unit or a scheme or a development or a bed or a facility – those sterile, functional words we use to describe the sterile, functional places we ‘put’ people in.

If ‘home’ doesn’t feel like the right word to use to describe where someone ‘lives’, it’s unlikely to feel like home to them either.

We need to find out what home really means to people, then support them to live in the place they call home.


If there’s one word that encapsulates all that social care should be about, it’s ‘belonging’. Love. Home. Safety. Meaning. Purpose. Connection. Identity. Inclusion. Rights. Family. Community. Friendship. Hope. All right there, in one word.

We must support people to find, remain in or return to the people and places where they feel they belong.


We talk a lot about what might go wrong. About reducing risk and ‘keeping people safe’.

But what of wishes? Desires? Aspirations? Ambitions?

Too often our words and our actions curtail dreams and crush hopes.

Focusing on what people shouldn’t do narrows our thinking and their choices. But focusing on what people could do opens eyes and opens doors to new opportunities and brighter futures.

We need to shift the balance away from risk and towards possibility, towards hope.


Care and support needs. Needs assessment. Eligible needs. Meeting needs. Preventing needs. Fluctuating needs. Urgent needs. Short-term needs. Longer-term needs. We talk a lot about needs. But it’s amazing how little we talk about rights.

We need to flip the narrative, from ‘need for’ to ‘right to’.


Doing the things that matter, that motivate, that make life worth living. The roles and occupations and pastimes we value, and that make us feel included, and valued. Talking about purpose is essential, not just in conversations about individual good lives and better futures, but also in terms of the purpose of our roles and our organisations. So often our ‘why’ is lost beneath the weight of the ‘what’ – the tasks and to-do lists. But pausing to think – and talk – about the why breathes life back in and (re)connects us with the values and beliefs at our core. Brings (back) meaning. Lights fires and keeps them burning.


Our social care ‘system’ is based on mistrust and misplaced trust. We have endless procedures, numerous manuals and forms. Layers of bureaucracy.

We don’t trust that people know what will work best for them, will make the right choices, are the experts in their lives. Yet we’re happy to trust that our safeguarding processes keep people safe, that our signposts point to a solution, that our referrals get picked up, that the services we prescribe will meet the outcomes we define.

Instead of believing in processes and policies and panels designed to make sure people do things right, we need to trust people to do the right things – the things that matter to them. Cede control. Learn when to step in to nurture connections and ensure sufficient resources and support are in place, and when to step back and get out of the way.


We need to say sorry. And mean it. Not the classic, non-apologetic ‘I’m sorry you feel…’ or ‘I’m sorry if…’. Not the passive, vague ‘mistakes were made’.

Just, I’m sorry. We’re sorry. Full stop.

Be honest, and transparent. See complaints and criticism as feedback, opportunities to reflect, to discuss, to learn. As catalysts for change.

And ask for help and ideas to make things better, together.


Service users. Cases. Clients. Customers. Patients. Residents. The elderly. The disabled. The vulnerable. Allocations. Referrals. Those.

It’s amazing how many words we use instead of people.

Social care is not about ‘them’. It’s about you. Me. Us.


And finally, care. It’s not exactly a missing word – we talk about care all the time. Care needs. Care plan. Home care. Care home. Short-term care. Intermediate care. Emergency care. Respite care. Long-term care. Residential care. End-of-life care. Care system. Care sector.

But I don’t mean care delivered in a package. Care as a task or a destination, a setting, or a service. Functional care. Care for others.

I mean care as curiosity, compassion, reciprocity, community.

Looking out for one another.

Caring about each other.

This post offers up ten words I think we need to say, write, hear, and read more about in relation to social care. Words of spirit, of colour, of humanity – not the lifeless, sterile jargon that dominates our current discourse. Words – and associated actions – that build and enhance relationships, remove barriers, sustain connections, and enable good lives to be built and brighter futures achieved.

But, of course, the words that are missing most are the words of the people who draw on care and support. The voices of lived experience. Too often absent from conversations and decisions and records about their own lives. Rarely included in discussions about local policies and priorities and plans. Seldom invited to lead or contribute to national debates.

There are many words we need to stop using, and many missing words that we need to use more. But above all else, we need to stop doing all the talking, and listen harder to all the missing voices.


[1] The trampoline effect: redesigning our social safety nets, Gord Tulloch and Sarah Schulman, Reach Press, 202

[2] The lost words, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, Hamish Hamilton, 2017

6 thoughts on “Missing words

  1. I am a social worker in secure psychiatric hospital. I share your concerns about the words we use in adult mental health. I am looking for some research or a blog like yours. I think your blog is amazing and completely resonates with me.

    Any advice would be very much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Georgina.. there are loads of amazing people writing powerful, thought provoking and hope inducing pieces.. check out Wendy Mitchell, Elly Chappell, Mark Neary, Alexis Quinn, Sara Ryan, Neil Crowther, Social Care Future, Social Work, Cats and Rocket Science, Alex Fox, Sue Robins…


  2. Hi Bryony, this is a brilliant blog, thought provoking and challenging, I really dislike the jargon we have gathered round ourselves in social care, I can’t believe how far we have removed ourselves from the people are here for, so this is a great reminder that we need to be human

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love your blog,it’s so important to respect others and use the appropriate words when talking to others. I never use the word access when my children go see their birth parents, I say, family time. I hate the words Foster children, what is wrong with children. I hate so many words within the social care system but yet I sometimes use them. I will definitely think before I use my words.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like how you have said it . I agreed totally with you . its a service afraid to be human, not realistic at all.


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