Ableist Word Profile: Cretin

Read a Czech translation of this post, prepared by Vera!

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

The word “cretin” is often used to describe someone of limited intelligence, often with the added connotation of being irritating. “That cretin didn’t change the brake pads properly, and now I have to resurface the rotors!” “That Bobby in accounting is such a mouthbreathing cretin!”

“Cretin” is an ableist word. It’s one which shouldn’t be used by people who consider themselves allies to people with disabilities. Many of the synonyms the dictionary so helpfully provides (idiot, moron, mongoloid, imbecile, fool, half-wit for example), are also ableist.

Let’s talk about the word origins of “cretin” first, shall we? The first recorded use of the word dates to the late 1700s, when it was integrated into English from an Alpine French word, crestin, in the sense of “a dwarfed and deformed idiot.” (Incidentally, who wants to play “spot the ableist language” in that dictionary entry?) The word appears to have its origins in the Vulgate Latin word for “Christian,” which may be, depending on which authority you believe, a reference to the suffering of Christ, the humanity of people with disabilities, or a fetishization of innocence, the idea being that people with disabilities can’t sin, and are therefore Christlike. Other authorities suggest that this etymology is wrong, and that the word may be derived from the same root for “creature.” No matter which etymology you prefer, the roots of this word are clearly rooted in ableist thought.

It’s not really clear which medical condition the Alpine French were describing, but English speakers used it to refer to people with hypothyroidism or iodine deficiencies, two problems which were apparently common in the French Alps. Cretinism, as it came to be known, was associated by members of the public with low intelligence, and as a result, people started using the word to refer to people whom they thought were unintelligent, even when those individuals did not have the medical problems the word was originally coined to describe.

By the 20th century, the medical community was abandoning this word to describe an actual medical condition, since it had acquired such a pejorative connotation, although the word can sometimes be seen in some medical texts. The continued use of “cretin” in English speaks to the ingrained ableism in the language, and also to ideas about intelligence and elitism which are very common in many people. The judgment of intelligence as a value which can be quantified, and the idea that people with lesser degrees of “intelligence” under objective testing are unworthy, are distressingly common. (They’re going to come up again and again in this series, too.)

So, what can you use instead of “cretin”?

Well, the first thing you need to do is examine the word the setting is used in. Let’s take the two examples above.

In the first example, our speaker is bemoaning the actions of a careless mechanic who failed to do a job properly. Surely, in this case, words such as “thoughtless,” “careless,” or perhaps “poorly trained” would be a better fit. “That thoughtless mechanic didn’t change the brake pads properly, and now I have to resurface the rotors!”

In the second example, the context is a bit unclear. Not knowing the speaker, we don’t know if Bob from accounting works slowly, is a bit pedantic when it comes to processing reimbursement claims, or what. It becomes necessary to examine what it is about Bob which so infuriates the speaker. That examination may uncover other words which would be not only more appropriate, but more accurate.

19 Comments

  1. “Mongoloid” is a word that just makes my skin crawl, fwiw.

    Didn’t they use that on Glee this week?

  2. I believe they may have, I was actually too busy muttering at the screen and shrieking inwardly to catch most of the specifics of the dialogue.

  3. YES. I am so glad to see this series. Ableism is so deeply ingrained in the English language that even anti-oppressionists might sometimes be surprised to find out a word’s oppressive roots. This is a great example. I’m excited to watch this blog.

  4. I’m glad to see this series, as I was just thinking the other day that it would be great to not only have a list of words not to use, but also other words to replace them with.

    I hope this becomes a regular feature.

  5. ….are there actually any insulting words that aren’t demeaning to *something*? I mean this question seriously, I keep realizing that all these different words have messed up connotations and I’m running out of things to replace them with. (Still trying, but it’s kind of “ack is there and end or should I be avoiding half of the dictionary”)
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Wicked Girls =-.

  6. Most insults are indeed designed to be demeaning, which raises the question of whether or not we should be using them at all; is it appropriate to continue marginalizing people in the interests of having a good insult to throw at someone? There is, however, a line between insults which are clearly rooted in oppression, and insults which are more generic. For example, calling someone a “moldering toe rag” isn’t really ableist. It might conceivably be offensive to toe rags, but fortunately they are inanimate, and unlikely to take offense.

    Eradicating ableist language (as well as other language -isms), for me, is about identifying what I really mean when I use an ableist word, and wondering if I can plug my real intent into the sentence. If I really do just want to insult someone who is annoying me, upsetting me, etc, I greatly enjoy coming up with creative insults (see: “moldering toe rag” above).

    Saying that one needs to “avoid half the dictionary” or that eliminating such language is “language policing” is a very common rhetorical tactic used to silence people who speak up about exclusionary language. It’s important to be aware of this when framing discussions about exclusionary language. It’s also important, to pre-empt the inevitable “my best friend says….” which will probably pop up on this post, to recognize that even if an individual doesn’t find a word or phrase offensive, that word or phrase may be hurtful to someone else.

  7. I have the thyroid condition that leads to cretinism (and nearly did so in my case, until it was treated with thyroid supplements from the age of five onwards after it was noticed that I was about half the height of my schoolmates when I started school) and generally I haven’t heard the term used in relation to my condition except twice, once after the biology teacher at my special school told everyone what my condition was called and once recently on my blog by a commenter. I don’t find the term particularly offensive since I don’t really identify with it, unless someone uses it knowingly in reference to my condition, but I never use it because my mother does. Similarly, my aunt hates the term “paranoid” because her husband has had mental illness including paranoia, but it just goes to show that people will freely use these terms until the condition affects them or those close to them.

    The etymology of it also makes it a religiously derogatory term, akin to using “Jew” or whatever to mean stingy or any of the other Jewish stereotypes, regardless of how it acquired its meaning. As a Muslim, I’m well aware that some of us very readily insult others’ religions while being extremely sensitive about our own. Another reason to avoid using it.
    .-= Matthew Smith´s last blog ..The line between compassion and pity =-.

  8. this has struck me too – how many (most? all?) of the words we use to insult are based on comparisons to a marginalized or less powerful group. i’d be very interested to know if that’s common across all languages or especially prominent in english.

  9. @Shiyiya:

    I think that’s a good question. I can’t promise to answer it, but I have a post on my blog around the same question: http://shrinkingphallus.wordpress.com/2009/07/19/thats-stupid-saying-what-we-mean/

  10. Yeah, “mongoloid” is horrible, and yes, they used it on Glee (among others). They used it coming out of the mouth of a horrible character, but that…doesn’t really cover it, especially since the unremitting horribleness of that character is issue-riffic in itself. Anyway.

    I’ve tossed a lot of “crazy” and “stupid” language around a -lot-, I know. Ideally I suspect would be excising the need to diminish people altogether, but, well, I’m thinking I’m not real likely to stop flaming people altogether any time soon, realistically speaking.

    Generally speaking the insults that don’t depend on mocking a group of marginalized people seem to have some derisive/disgust-inducing/absurdist take on a body part (one or more), or something related to it. “toerag,” as someone mentioned. also: “asshat,” “assclown,” “jerkoff,” “dingleberry” (my personal favorite right now), “gobshite,” and so forth. I’ve also used “fuckwit” as a staple. that and “ratfucker.”
    .-= belledame222´s last blog ..Happy National Coming Out Day, y’all. =-.

  11. This post has been added to a link roundup! Thank you.

  12. meloukhia, I’m sorry about saying half the dictionary like that, really didn’t intend to be silencing. Just frustrated because I keep trying to fix my vocabulary to not be *-ist and finding new things that are wrong.
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Lost =-.

  13. Wow, I had no idea that was the real definition of the word. Probably because my definition was all ready way off– I used it as a synonym for creepy. As in, seriously scary creepy like the dude walking down the street behind you. Thanks for putting this up!

  14. @EGhead Yeah, I’ve never used the word before, but I had vaguely thought it meant something more like creepy than anything to do with intelligence.

  15. This may be because people saw “unintelligent” people as creepy. (I don’t know the actual history. But, well, it’s not that hard to imagine.)

  16. The word definitely carries overtones of creepy or disturbing; my thesaurus actually does list “creepy” as a synonym. Which I think speaks immensely to attitudes about intelligence, as you say, AmandaW. And it’s really amazing to note how many ableist words revolve around denigration of people with intelligence which is perceived as lesser.

  17. Wow. I really needed to read that. A lot of things are starting to crystalize in my mind. Thanks for writing.

  18. I know I’m way late on this, but I always thought it meant someone who came from Crete! Thanks for the addition to my knowledge. 🙂

  19. kitrona – those are Cretans. (If you were serious. I couldn’t resist.)

    Crete’s really fascinating – both in ye olde tymes (the minotaur!) and today – I think it was divided in two and some recent book (I think the one about the world without people) talked about how it (or one side) was all resorts, but the wars left the classy hotels abandoned.