February 2017
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slurs are both harmful and not expressive: say what you actually mean instead
An lj friend of mine was pondering pejorative use of words like 'lame' and wondered if "by stripping (colloquial or written) language of everything that could possibly offend anyone ever, you're stripping it of tools for expression that can't necessarily be replaced." I don't want to strip language of tools for expression, of course, but I think one can easily tell if negative use of a word might cause suffering by asking the question "does this word depend on the assumed inferiority of a group of people to be meaningful?" If so, one could then make the argument that if it caused only a little suffering and provided benefit by being expressive, it might be worth it; however, I do not feel that commonly-used invectives are expressive. For instance, most people who use the word 'lame' to mean 'negative/inferior' aren't thinking "people with disabilities are unpleasant/inferior just like this situation, therefore this is an appropriate term" (which would be expressive as well as overtly prejudiced), they're just repeating a term they've heard used with no thought as to the connotations of the word. Being expressive involves thinking about the meaning of what you are saying and the impact it will have on who you are speaking to (among other things).

I also think derogatory use of person-descriptive words has the effect of reinforcing social stigma, and I consider the slimmest risk of reinforcing negative stigmas to outweigh any enjoyment/camaraderie that might be found in using a culturally-approved insult.

Furthermore, I consider short judgment statements to have no purpose. When people say "That's [negative adjective]" they're not actually saying what they mean. Often they mean "I don't like that" or "that makes me uncomfortable" or "I wish this was different" or "I feel for you, that situation would upset me too" -- but instead of expressing feelings directly, they pronounce a judgment as if it were a fact. One is supposed to intuit what they mean by this vague judgment. Saying "That's [negative adjective]" all by itself has no real meaning -- and if you go on to explain, it becomes unnecessary. Calling something 'retarded' or 'gay' or 'lame' is a sideways way of saying that one doesn't like it; it would be much clearer to state exactly what one doesn't like and why and how it makes one feel. It's also more vulnerable though, so I can understand the impulse to make a judgment statement instead of an emotion statement. Since I came to think this way there have certainly been times when I've been silent where I would previously have made a judgment statement, because I couldn't bring myself to express my emotion on it (either because I was feeling vulnerable or because I worried that expressing my feelings would seem intrusively personal to the person). I feel that silence is a better choice for me than judgment, and I feel also that it motivates me to practice openness. (I sometimes resort to saying variations on "that's horrible" but my goal is to express feeling instead)

And as far as the emotional side of this, it upsets me to hear someone describe something as 'retarded' or 'gay' or 'lame' as a way of expressing negative emotion, because I feel that that is a careless insult to anyone who might be accurately described by the literal definition of those words. I know that, for example, not all gay people would be offended by someone saying, "that's gay" in a disparaging way, but for me that's irrelevant. Even if it is unintentional AND misses the target, it remains an insult. I believe intensely in the power of words and when a word is uttered in a negative context over and over, I believe it sends negative energy to everything attached to that word. So it makes me cringe because I feel like every time someone does that, it hurts people, even if no one is consciously aware of it.

ETA: not to mention, there are people for whom these words are triggering because they often are used in abusive situations. It is not okay to express yourself sloppily and risk causing someone to have a PTSD flashback when you could just be a little more creative and honest instead.

This sort of builds on my thoughts on 'curse words' (which I wrote over 5 years ago so don't judge me on the rather scattered and unsupported quality! it needs re-writing, but it pretty much gets the point across).

Replacements for the ableist slurs "retarded" "herpderp" "crazy/mental/insane" "lame" "dumb/stupid/idiot" (includes links to why those are ableist)


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Comments
This is interesting. For a person like me who isn't a native English speaker many connotations are completely unfamiliar and I learn words from books, films and other people but I do not always check the original meanings from a dictionary. For example the world lame you were referring to here. I had no idea it is some way not proper and it might offend someone as I had no idea of its other meaning. I have never heard the word used in the other connotation. But in Finnish language we also have a term that actually means disabled but people use it as an adjective to things they dislike. I never use that word in Finnish.. and now I know the truth behind the word lame I don't think I will ever use it again.
I totally agree with you! I think that even though the intent when most people use these words is not to disparage a particular group and many times people are actually unaware of the original meaning, it doesn´t justify continued use after being made aware. Especially within small groups of friends and family, people get away this speaking in a way that they would be ashamed for the world at large to hear.
I do tend to call people on certain things now if I find it racist or homophobic or sexist, etc. and honestly, more than once I have been told that I am being really controlling. But if someone asks me "Oh, that movie was really lame wasn´t it?" And I say yes, it was- then I am condoning it and perpetuating that particular use of it. And I am not willing to do that.

I think that the English language has an almost infinite capacity for describing to a very precise degree exactly what emotion we want to convey if only we aren´t too lazy to search for words and don´t fall back on overly used but "meaningless in the grand scheme of things" words as filler in our language. Our language can be so creative and I am often let speechless by the way that true wordsmiths play with language with such wit.

I am really bad myself sometimes, though. I overuse words like awesome and excellent. I really could do much better.
Out of curiosity, what do you make of words that have naturally evolved over time to mean something completely different today? I'm not talking about the words you've mentioned here as they have more recently begun the shift (in most cases; I can't understand words like "rape" becoming something else entirely). Some examples I found were artificial, nice, and awful. These words once meant something different entirely - and in these three examples, they meant the opposite of what they mean today. What are your thoughts on word evolution?

ETA: Actually, I suppose that "gay" would be a recent evolution. What once was used to describe being happy and jovial became a word to describe someone who is homosexual. Which homosexuals can be happy and jovial, but that's not the original meaning of the word at all! I'm actually kind of interested to know how these shifts occur...
I'm fascinated by words that evolve, too! In my History of the English Language class we talked about how language used to be a lot more flexible, especially before the invention of the printing press and all of that, and how standardizing language and the creation of dictionaries are a relatively new thing.

I'll admit, I've been guilty of using "lame" and "retarded," and of course I knew the original meaning of those words, but I guess I sort of forgot. When I used those words, I didn't associate them with a group of people because I never hear disabled people actually being referred to as "lame", and I don't really hear mentally challenged people being referred to as "retarded" either. I guess I don't use "gay" in a negative way, because "gay" still very much means "homosexual."

But I think it is important to realize that words do naturally shift. For example, "gay" did used to mean "happy," then it shifted to "homosexual," and now in this context, it's sometimes used as a negative adjective. I think the reasons behind the shifts can sometimes be more offensive than the actual words themselves.

But thanks for posting this. I would never actually use words like "lame" or "retarded" to insult disabled people, but I am guilty of not really thinking things through sometimes before I say things and not realizing when language I'm using could be offensive to other people, and this post made me think about that.
History of the English Language remains the most fascinating course I have ever taken, and I'm in my last semester of my Master's program. The evolution of words is so spectacular.

I very much see what you mean about how these words have evolved. In spite of an awareness that "lame" can mean physically handicapped, it's not a modern usage. I think within our generation, this word in particular is a good example of word evolution. Words can, just that quickly, become used far, far more often in a new context, apart from their original meaning. Think about "cool" and how its used now.
samwhise beaker
Well hey!

In case there was any confusion, I agree with you on pretty much all the points contained herein, and I particularly appreciate your point about short statements of judgment - no matter the language they use - being (at best) pointless. Knee-jerk reactions are not a substitute for critical thinking or thoughtful expression.

I probably have more to say about this but I'm supposed to be working.
Interesting. As a non-native english speaker it's really fascinating to see something like this actually debated. I suppose it might be because english seems to lend itself easier to short judgment states about things. I mean I hate the word 'gay' and 'retarded' used in that respect, but I hadn't thought that the word 'lame' could be taken the same way. I suppose, now that I think about it, I always associated it with ducks for some reason (a lame duck), and not really with something that might apply to people. How do people feel about an expression like 'that's so stupid?' does that also have negative connotations?

I think that we probably have a lot less of that over here because swedish is very expressive when it comes to recombine words into swearwords. To, for example, say that something is lame/gay/whatever, we have a multitude of words that means things pike 'pissbad' 'asspoor' 'shitridicuous' and things like that.
frecklestars academic drivel
Please excuse me while I put on my "I'm gonna be a professor someday" hat. Two factoids to add:

1) The words "moron", as well as "idiot" or "imbecile", were all used as part of the eugenics movement to label those who were "unfit for society". All these words were justifications for things like forced sterilization (which happened as late as the 1970s!!!), institutionalization, and the subjugation of women in particular (forgive the overused phrase - it's morning and it fits and I'm tired).

2) I don't know the validity of this one as well as the last, but a colleague told me that when someone refers to a town or area as "podunk", that was actually a tribe of Native Americans that the White settlers decided to stamp out (one of many). Part of this process was re-defining their very name to mean "broken" or "old and crappy". (Those are technical terms, mmmhmmm.)

These, along with the phrase "rule of thumb", which refers to the rule that a man could beat his wife with a stick so long as its' diameter was no larger than his thumb, are some really disturbing colloquial expressions.

I'll shush now. :P This was a great post. I'm working on my own language to purge it of offensive terms, though I admit that "retarded", "idiot", and "moron" still slip in.
Your sentiment and intent are dead one;however, by stepping back and taking a holistic look at the overall issue that you passionately pursue ( to your passion I so "You go girl!") one might conclude that the indictment is not with words, but with the individuals who use them. Pardon my cynicism and allowing myself to do something that I despise (I do not like generalization) but there is a good percentage of the US population that is thoughtless, clueless, and uncaring when it comes to the feelings of others and the impact their chosen words have. Lame actually refers to a medical condition and upon hearing its misuse, I think that I am going to try the smart ass approach that, it can't be lame, it doesn't have legs, or they look like they can walk fine to me, etc, etc. I ramble on because this is coincidental (is there really a such thing as a coincidence?) with the point because I am going through a growth spurt in the area of honesty in communications. Words are powerful. Use them with care!
I consider the slimmest risk of reinforcing negative stigmas to outweigh any enjoyment/camaraderie that might be found in using a culturally-approved insult.

I totally agree. I've had someone tell me once that if a disparaging joke caused more enjoyment for those laughing about it than it caused suffering for the person who was the butt of the joke, then the joke was justified. I just cannot fathom how anyone with a heart could permit themselves to reach such a conclusion. There are plenty of ways to entertain ourselves without harming others.

I was not aware you were also offended by the use of the word "lame." I honestly never thought about its alternate meaning as "crippled" when I used it to describe anything. I suppose that if a disabled person were to overhear me saying "lame" they may get offended. However, the third meaning of lame in my dictionary is: "poor, weak, unconvincing, ineffectual, etc," whereas gay is defined as "happy" or "homosexual" and retarded is defined as "slowed or delayed in development or progress" with no mention of derogatory connotations. I think that people can use the word lame if they want, say, if they have to work on Christmas or if a check got bounced or something.
on communication, social justice, intimacy, consent, friendship & other relationships, spirituality, gender, queerness, & dreams. Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.
Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.