Umbrella term (or blanket term) refers to a word or phrase that denotes a superordinate semantic category, which by definition encompasses or refers to other subordinate meanings and concepts. For example, the concept bird contains within it diverse birds, e.g., robin, crow, ostrich, and penguin as subordinate concepts; but also common features such as wing, fly, feather, beak.
An umbrella term can be problematic, as well as useful. It can enforce hierarchy and oppression, as well as promote collectivism, cohesion and solidarity. Umbrella terms, or to use their neuropsychological and cognitive scientific name: superordinate labels, are an inevitable part of human cognition. Brains function by abstracting and generalising over experiences, so they cluster life events into categories and then apply linguistic labels over such categories. This further enforces (the perception of) similarity within a category, while also further enforcing (the perception of) difference between categories.
For example, the grouping animals is a useful way to think about the world when dealing with animate and inanimate objects, but that does not mean it reflects reality perfectly. When not thinking about arguably more clear cut semantic grouping and instead discussing identities and other intersectional social justice concepts, problems with this innate ability of the brain to group things come to surface. The grouping people, for example, is less useful if when discussing people what the audience brings to mind is a cishet white able-bodied man. This is why when using and defining umbrella terms one must bear in mind intersectional identities and oppressive forces.
The negative potential of umbrella terms is explained in the following quote by María Lugones:
|Intersectionality reveals what is not seen when categories such as gender and race are conceptualized as separate from each other. The move to intersect the categories has been motivated by the difficulties in making visible those who are dominated and victimized in terms of both categories. Though everyone in capitalist Eurocentered modernity is both raced and gendered, not everyone is dominated or victimized in terms of their race or gender. Kimberlé Crenshaw and other women of color feminists have argued that the categories have been understood as homogenous and as picking out the dominant in the group as the norm; thus women picks out white bourgeois women, men picks out white bourgeois men, black picks out black heterosexual men, and so on. It becomes logically clear then that the logic of categorical separation distorts what exists at the intersection, such as violence against women of color. Given the construction of the categories, the intersection misconstrues women of color. So, once intersectionality shows us what is missing, we have ahead of us the task of reconceptualizing the logic of the intersection so as to avoid separability. It is only when we perceive gender and race as intermeshed or fused that we actually see women of color.:192-3|
As mentioned, umbrella terms can be useful, benign, and powerful. Umbrella terms can play, and have played, a large role in community unification, e.g., gender variant, queer, LGBT, gay, non-binary, trans. All of the aforementioned words can function as umbrellas as well as individual identities. Importantly, nothing says that an individual identity cannot also be an umbrella, provided it is defined respectfully and inclusively, and vice versa.
The part of cognition which gives rise to these concepts is called semantic cognition; a series of cognitive subsystems that subsume and operate over semantic memory. In other words, our cognition forms, controls, and produces semantic concepts, i.e., the meanings of things. As such, any meaning behind an individual word, phrase, or utterance is underpinned by semantic cognition. So when one hears the word "bird", one forms some representation, conceptualisation, or expression of bird in their consciousness. Depending on past experiences, one might think of a robin, a seagull, or even a nondescript bird.
It is not impossible for a person to actively change, modify, or control their semantic cognition by suppressing certain meanings or by nearly expunging them altogether. In fact, this kind of cognitive control is carried out (overwhelmingly by the frontal lobe) all the time, it is known as executive control.
- This can be pejorative.
- McCarthy, Rosaleen A., ed. Semantic knowledge and semantic representations. Vol. 3. No. 3-4. Psychology Press, 1995.
- Is a virus animate or inanimate?
- LUGONES, M. (2007), Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System. Hypatia, 22: 186–219. doi: 10.1111/j.1527-2001.2007.tb01156.x