Learn your A–Z

Some words or phrases appear constantly in the media or in conversation but they seem to mean different things depending on who is using them. Other words are often misused or misunderstood.

Don’t worry – this handy Agnes guide will lead you through the maze so that you will always say exactly what you mean (and mean exactly what you say). More will follow!



“Depression” or being “depressed” are confusingly used in two senses:

  • an everyday, common, emotion of feeling a bit “down” or “low” – perhaps  at the thought of another school week looming, or if you’ve just been dumped by your boyfriend, or it’s raining outside and you can’t think of anything particular to do. Although this type of depression varies in intensity, it is normally quite short-lived and can generally be cured by everyday solutions – a good chat with friends, a new project, a walk in the countryside, a trip to the cinema.
  • clinical depression, when your mind becomes overwhelmed and you are unable to think or function normally for an extended period of time. This is a serious mental illness, and requires treatment – please see here if you think you or a friend might be affected.

Elite ( or  “The Liberal elite” or “the Establishment”)


All these expressions were regularly used during the turbulent politics of 2016, in both the UK and the USA. Politicians such as Nigel Farage in the UK and Donald Trump in the USA criticised people in privileged positions who had been in charge and organised things to suit themselves for too long.  They accused them of ignoring the lives and wishes of “normal people”.

The reference to the “liberal” elite reflected the view that privileged people had the luxury of being more relaxed and tolerant, than those “normal people” who directly suffered the effects of unemployment or housing shortages or overstretched social services. It did not seem to recognise the possibility that unprivileged people can also be tolerant, and that privileged people can be intolerant; but there has since been some more widespread concern that too many people in positions of power or influence are unaware or dismissive of other viewpoints.

In the UK, many people who have key roles in politics, journalism, media and other well-paid and influential professions, do share a similar background – public (or occasionally grammar) school followed by “Oxbridge” (university at Oxford or Cambridge). Often these people know each other socially, and any children they may have seem to be given a head-start in life. This may give the impression of an “establishment” closed to anyone who does not fit the mould.

In fact, there are also plenty of people from other backgrounds in politics, journalism, media and other well-paid and influential positions including MPs, industry leaders, solicitors, bankers, scientists…. And most “establishment” organisations, including Oxbridge, the Civil Service and the BBC , are keen to reflect wider society, and actively encourage participation from as wide a cross-section as possible.

Don’t be put off anything you want to do by the feeling that it is somehow not for you; make the most of your education, inform and prepare yourself, and let the world be your oyster.



When people in the UK refer to “Europe” they might mean:

  • the geographical continent of Europe. The UK, confusingly, is both part of the geographical continent of Europe (it is a “European” or “northern European” country), and also separate from it (it is not part of the continental landmass)
  • the European Union (EU) or its institutions or its actions or its decisions –  described in more detail here
  • The European Court of Human Rights or its judgments, which affect the UK for the reasons explained here

Quite often people are not clear about which “Europe” they mean, and this can lead to some misunderstandings. For example, the referendum decision of June 2016 to leave the EU will not affect the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe, its place in the Ryder Cup European team or its success or otherwise in the Eurovision Song Contest.



The dictionary definition of feminism is “advocacy of women’s rights on grounds of equality of the sexes”. In other words, feminists argue that because men and women are equal, women should have the same rights as men.

The reason for using the specific words “feminism” or “feminist” rather than “equality” or “equalist” is because most men have historically had greater rights in most societies than most women. Feminism was designed to redress the balance.

There is a wide range of people who call themselves feminists, and a wide range of activities and viewpoints that can be described as “feminist”. Different things matter to different people. Feminism can be the core part of a person’s identity and interests, or one of many things that matters to them. Some feminists like to theorise, others to take direct action.

Feminism has achieved much greater equality in the UK over the past decades, and under the law you should not be treated less favourably because you’re a girl or a woman. You may however think that in practice girls and women are still treated less favourably in the UK in certain areas – perhaps in relationships, or in certain jobs, or in your ability to walk down the street without harassment; and you may see even more pressing needs in other countries around the world. If you consider yourself a feminist, you will not be short of things to do.



This term is sometimes loosely used as an alternative to “sex”, in the sense of the distinction between men and women (perhaps some people prefer it because “sex” of course also means “sexual intercourse”); so you may hear people talking about “gender discrimination”.

More precisely, it is now used to mean either:

  • the state of being male or female in cultural or social terms rather than biological terms; so “gender differences”, “traditional gender roles”
  • the sex that a person identifies themself as, rather than their biological sex. For most people, their gender identity is the same as their biological sex, but for some people there is a mismatch which can cause distress – see more about this here



A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. They are afraid to return because of a well-founded fear that the same persecution, war or violence will be repeated.

Refugees are protected in international law, principally under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees (as extended). In very simplified terms, people who flee to another country can apply for asylum in that country; their application is processed according to the laws of that country, and if it is found that they meet the definition of a refugee, they have a right to remain in that country. Under current EU rules, people are required to apply for asylum in the first EU country they reach.

Refugees are not the same as economic migrants; this expression is not defined in law, but is generally used to mean someone who leaves their country in search of a better life, rather than because they are forced to leave by persecution, war or violence. Economic migrants are not protected under the 1951 Convention, and will not be granted asylum, but may be allowed to stay in the new country depending on that country’s immigration policy.

Sexual orientation


Your sexual orientation refers to the type of person to whom you are sexually, romantically, or physically attracted. Teenagers are often attracted to all sorts of people in all sorts of ways – see this page for more.