Ableist Word Profile: Lame

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.

Our first two posts in this series seem to have been a smash hit! So, today, I’m picking up with “lame.” When people first start thinking about ableist language, “lame” is one of the first words they eliminate, and it’s a word worth examining. It is usually used in a context which suggests that something is bad, boring, or not worthy of attention. A word often interchanged with “lame” is “gay,” which is, of course, homophobic.

And also not very creative.

“Lame,” derived from a word which literally means “broken,” is an original Old English word. We’re getting to the roots of ableism here, people! At any rate, the word was used historically to refer to people (and animals) with difficulty walking. It’s a bit unclear when people started using the word in the context of events/situations/objects, although it appears to have started around the 18th century.

“Lame” is an ableist word. It’s an ableist word because it assumes that having difficulty walking is objectively bad, and that therefore, a word which is used to describe difficulty walking can be safely used as a pejorative to mean “this is bad.” Using “lame” reinforces ableism in our culture by reminding people that disability is bad, and that it’s so bad that it can be used as a shorthand code to talk about bad things in general. Incidentally, the related “lame-brain”? Also ableist. Just so we’re all clear on that.

One defense of this word which I sometimes encounter is “well, I know someone who is disabled and they use it,” or “I know someone who uses it self referentially.” Both of these things may well be true. I am certainly not going to override your experience. But not everyone views “lame” in a neutral or positive way. Here’s a selection from a comment left at this ain’t livin’ by FB, a regular reader:

Please imagine men AND women staring at you who either: want to insult you because you limp, want to point out that you limp, want to know why you limp, want to point you to an elevator or their personal medical specialist, and, very ocassionaly, want your number because they think you’re attractive. And you know what makes these stares complicated? You never know why they’re staring, except that there is an 80% chance it is about the limp, and absolutely no chance they’ll just leave you alone to mind your own business.

That’s how some people feel when they hear the word “lame.” And when we talk about language usage, it’s worth considering how our use of language impacts others. Not the people we know, the people who assure us that our language is ok, but the people we don’t know. The people whom we are hurting with our careless language use. Eradicating ableist language is not about meeting some politically correct ideal (and when did “politically correct” become a pejorative), it’s about thinking about our actions and considering the ways in which they impact others.

Language has power. We have power when we use language. Language is often used to oppress and abuse. That is what this series is about, an attempt to break the ableist habits of English language users because those habits enforce ableism in English-speaking societies.

So, what are some good alternatives to “lame”?

Try thinking about the situation the word is being applied to. Some suggestions might be: bad, boring, dull, not worth my time, frustrating, irritating.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

25 thoughts on “Ableist Word Profile: Lame

  1. flimsy, inadequate, insufficient, unconvincing, weak, unsatisfactory, inept, pathetic, deficient, hollow, meagre, perfunctory

    (from a list I compiled for a Blogging Against Disabilism Day post)

  2. Mandolin had an EXCELLENT post at Alas, a Blog about this:

    But even accepting that impairment to mobility is itself a sucky thing, MAYBE DISABLED PEOPLE DO NOT APPRECIATE BEING THE CULTURAL GO-TO FOR THINGS THAT SUCK.

    And maybe — since people have been historically all-too-willing to relieve disabled people of the burden of having to live through all that suckiness — just maybe disability activists know what the fuck they’re talking about when they say that the constant condensation of visible disability with “suckiness” as a metaphorical cultural touchstone has real, concrete, and evil ramifications on the lives of people with disabilities.

    Just maybe.

  3. “weak” is ableist.

    Obviously, I hadn’t thought it was, or I wouldn’t have included it. I’m sorry. I’ll read the post on it when it comes up.

  4. Oh, good, I can get in on this before 1000 people have (although I’m far from the first):

    Thank the good lord for this series. I’m coming in from Shapely Prose, and am thrilled to death to see this, because I am exactly who needs to read it. I’ve spent a decade and a half fighting “That’s so gay” everywhere I see it, and yet it was about a month ago that I realized “lame” was… problematic (What the heck, self?). And I’ve had the same “Holy crap, what *can* I say?” reaction as many others, although I hope it was more of an “Oh my God, the cultural bullshit goes deep” and less of a “Wahh, my freedom to make poor word choices!”

    Long story short: thank you for these, and thank you for marking them 101-friendly, and the more alternatives like “toe rag” you can remind me about, the happier a li’l camper I’ll be. Because I never want to be disrespectful, but I do often want to be impolite (in my head, mostly).

  5. One defense of this word which I sometimes encounter is “well, I know someone who is disabled and they use it,”

    As someone with a gait who also used to use “lame” in an ableist way, let me say that this excuse means jack. I was still being ableist, and as you said, just because one/some PWD think an ableist word is okay doesn’t mean that the word doesn’t hurt other people.

    I’m really enjoying this series so far. Most disturbingly, I notice that many words in it are used very often in kids’ cartoons (Spongebob Squarepants, Back at the Barnyard, etc). In fact, the first time I heard a variant of “lame” (“lame-brain”) was in a cartoon when I was a kid.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..
    Trailer dump:Avatar =-.

  6. Wow, thank you for this series. Also coming from Shapely Prose. Like others, I only realized recently that the term was ableist, and have struggled to change my word usage. At the moment I don’t think I can call out others on their usage of it because I still use it sometimes (unconsciously, and I’ll certainly be increasing my efforts tenfold.)

  7. One defense of this word which I sometimes encounter is “well, I know someone who is disabled and they use it,” or “I know someone who uses it self referentially.” Both of these things may well be true. I am certainly not going to override your experience.

    One of the reasons I don’t like this defense is that I’m not sure what it proves exactly. Other than the startling realisation that people with disabilities don’t all agree on everything and are individuals, kinda like other members of identifiable groups. As I responded to one person, I have able-bodied friends who think it’s really offensive, so I guess that means it’s okay for me to insist you not use it. I mean, if all PWD represent all other PWD, then all currently non-disabled should represent all other currently non-disabled, right? Right?

    No one likes the argument. I can’t imagine why.
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..More Historical Quotes – on blindness =-.

  8. My other issue with the self-referential defence is that there’s a big difference between someone with mobility issues saying “I’m lame” and somebody currently able-bodied using ‘lame’ in place of inadequate or crap. I realise it’s usually brought up in the “and they’re okay with it” context but I’ve definitely seen it both ways.

    The big reason I had trouble realising ‘lame’ was a shitty thing to say was because I’d never actually heard it used to refer to people, only animals (much like words like ‘spayed’) so I found it difficult to reconcile as something people might find personal (not that its ever my place t make that call, obviously). Which isn’t to excuse my use of it, (and honestly its one of the reasons I personally find it so shitty -way to be dehumanising :/!) but just throwing it out there because I figure if I had that issue, other people might as well. 🙁

  9. I’m actively trying to avoid ‘lame’ now, and it’s definitely thanks to insightful pieces like this. Still a lot to consider… I really look forward to the piece on ‘weak,’ because I can’t agree in the slightest that it’s ableist. And that, of course, is why I want to hear why it is! So keep writing! As someone with disabilities and a love of words, I really appreciate this series.

  10. While I appreciate the alternatives to, “lame,” given above, they address the technical meaning more than usage as an exclamation. I too have been guilty of using, “lame,” and mostly have used it in pretending to be a cool kid calling someone’s action uncool. (“I’m going to bed.” “LAME!”) This usage is highly divorced from its origin and needs to stop. Thus, I propose,”square,” as an appropriate choice in these contexts. For instance, if I’m feeling obnoxious and a friend tells me she has to go do some work, shouting, “SQUARE!” has that same I’m-pretending-to-act-like-a-cool-young-kid feel.

  11. I like “square” – that seems to hit closest to the way I’ve tended to use “lame.” I think “broken” could also be a good substitute, like, “Ugh, I’m totally broken and not going out tonight.”

    I think these word profiles are great – even if I understand the ableist context of a word, spending a little bit of time thinking about where it comes from and what could substitute is helpful.

  12. I’m not sure how “I know someone who uses it self-referentially” is supposed to be a *defense*. The usual defense I’ve seen is the exact opposite, namely “but no one ever uses it for actual disabled people anymore!!!” In fact – guilty admission time – when I was younger and a lot more ignorant about disability issues, I used to think that being against the word lame was omg /so/ PC and oversensitive. (*hides in shame*) Then I was chatting to a friend of mine online and I’m not sure what turn the conversation took but he said “oh, yeah, I’m lame,” and talked about needing a cane to walk with-

    I just sat there mentally going “oh god I am never, ever using the word lame as a pejorative again.” For me, discovering people use it to describe themselves was the reason that made me stop using it. Because, you know, every time I would’ve used it afterwards I would’ve thought of my friend and how using his life to say something was pathetic/boring/etc. was really, really messed up.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..On talking vs. silence and currently-abledness =-.

  13. Yes, Kaz, this, exactly. It’s why I’ve always found this justification totally bizarre when people say it. I want to reply “wait, you like your friends so much that you use the terms they use to refer to their disabilities as pejoratives? Wow, some friend you are.”

  14. EGhead, “Weak” is ableist because weakness is part and parcel of some disabilities (like mine–I have Post-polio Sequelae, or PPS). When we use it to insult a person it is exactly the same as discussed up-thread when we use “lame”: We are using a disabled person’s symptoms, someone else’s everyday reality, as an insult. There is no difference between “That’s so lame!” and “That’s weak, man!” No. Difference.

    That said, let me admit here that I never would have written that before today. I have used “weak” and “lame” for years, despite the fact that I am both, as handy insults. All I can say in my defense is that I am a work in progress. I’m still learning and growing!

    Thank you for asking about it. That you acknowledge you use it, disagree with others’ dislike of it, and are willing (hell, even looking forward to) being educated to think differently about the word–well, that all keeps you and this space safe for me and other folk here!
    .-= Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D.´s last blog ..9/11 still killing =-.

  15. I’m sorry to admit that though I’ve been trying to root it out, this is firmly rooted in my vocabulary… when I was younger, I forcefully insisted on it as an alternative to the go-to indicator of cultural suck for my peer group, which was “gay”.

    I thought I was being all enlightened and junk. 😛

  16. First of all, thank you so much for this blog. I was pointed to it by a friend, and I’ve been paging through it for the last couple of days. I think resources and communities like this are invaluable.

    On the ‘I know someone who uses it self-referentially’ point, I often tell people I have a ‘gammy leg’, or that ‘my gammy leg is acting up’. It’s a slightly old-fashioned term, but it has the advantage of being both non-specific and easily understandable by the majority of people. It sure beats giving them my medical diagnosis (avascular nercosis or AVN, if anyone’s interested). That does not mean however that I want anyone *else* describing me in that way.

    BTW, I’m a little concerned by the tendency to shorten the phrase ‘people/person with disabilities’ to the acronym ‘PWD’. If the intention of the phrase is to highlight the PERSONhood of disabled people, as opposed to their disability, surely reducing that back to an acronym – whose meaning can so easily be lost or perverted – effectively negates that intention? I know I wouldn’t be happy if someone referred to me as ‘a PWD’, or any other acronym for that matter.

  17. Bingo. A friend of mine once wrote an informational post on LJ about how and why using “that’s so gay” as a pejorative was problematic because the person using it probably meant “lame” or “stupid” or something like that, and not “homosexual” or “happy,” and association “gay” with “bad” was homophobic and problematic. Good effort, but intersectionality fail.
    .-= DDog´s last blog ..DDog: @bwvalentine I didn’t really get it either. The wrapper story was mostly useless, but the inner story was interesting. =-.

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