What We Talk About When We Talk About Language

There are a lot of things we talk about when we talk about language, of course, but it’s worth highlighting something important: when we talk about language, we don’t talk about what it used to mean, or what it is supposed to mean, or what you think it means. We talk about how society uses language, right now. Because it’s the social use of language which can turn language into a weapon, and it’s the engrained nature of ableist language which makes it so harmful.

One of the most common defenses I see of ableist language is “well, it doesn’t mean that anymore.”

So, my question is, what does it mean?

One of the things I like to do when I am illustrating why language is exclusionary is I plug in a commonly-known original meaning of the word in question into a sentence. Let’s take “lame,” which is generally taken to mean “has difficulty walking” or “limps,” although the original use was actually just “broken.”

So, if someone says “this television show is lame” and you turn the sentence into “this television show has difficulty walking,” it doesn’t really make sense, right? Just like when you say “this social activity which I am being forced to do by my parent is a homosexual man,” it doesn’t really make sense. And this should tell you something. It should tell you that the word you are using has an inherently pejorative meaning.

Which means, actually, you’re totally right when you say a word “doesn’t mean that anymore.” In fact, it’s gone from being a value neutral term used to describe a state of being to being a pejorative. A pejorative so universally accepted that you can expect users to understand exactly what you mean when you say it. When you say “this television show is lame” you mean it’s bad, not worth your time, boring, etc., and here’s the trick: People understand that meaning and they derive it from the word that you have used, because that word is universally accepted as objectively bad.

People often accuse people like me of being “language police.” I’ve been informed that addressing exclusionary language is limiting, too restrictive, etc. That’s not actually the case. Being aware of my own language use has, in fact, enriched my use of the English language, because it has forced me to actually think about what I am saying and how I say it. And I grew up in the household of an English professor, so I know my English.

Instead of using an exclusionary pejorative, why not find a word use which actually describes what we mean?

That guy who cut me off at the intersection the other day wasn’t an idiot. He was arrogant, perhaps. He may also have been reckless, thoughtless, careless, unobservant, or possibly just a moldering toe-rag. But he wasn’t an idiot. So, why would I use the word “idiot” to describe him? And why would I tolerate that word from someone else?

Using inclusionary language is actually fun. You get to explore the roots of words you use, you get to find new and exciting words to use, and you get to learn more about the structure of a language you speak every day. It constantly amazes me to see how quickly exclusionary terms trip to my tongue when I’m in a hurry, because they are so ingrained as appropriate pejoratives. I’m actually relishing the process of eradicating them from my spoken and written language, because I love words and language play.

And I loathe essentialism. I loathe “well, it’s a value neutral term.” No, it’s not. If it was value neutral, it would not be in use as a pejorative. I loathe “no one really means that anymore.” Yes, they do, because if they didn’t, they would use a different word. Just like no one calls a “train” an “iron horse” anymore.

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'.

22 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Language

  1. So well-said.

    I have a huge problem with ableist language. Huge. Monumental. And I despair, because it often still doesn’t FEEL wrong to me to use it, even though I know it IS wrong. I am working on that, but it’s really hard to correct in the heat of the moment without that internal compass.

    I’ve worked hard to eradicate sexist language from my speech and writing to much better effect, and I have found that what you say is true: as I stop reaching for the easy thing, I have to actually go back to what I REALLY mean and find a way to say it that is just as vitriolic. I get much more shocking language that way, frankly, and it has improved the quality of my swearing fourfold at least.

  2. Naamah,

    “[I]t has improved the quality of my swearing fourfold at least.”

    Ha! So I’m not the only one! 😀 Sometimes the best alternative to -ist language *is* a swear word. (I think it was Cara at The Curvature who said that the nice thing about the word “asshole” is that everyone has one).
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..New blog of awesomeness =-.

  3. This is an excellent post. One of the defenses of ableist language I really loathe is the “I’ve never heard it used that way before” — whether for “lame,” “retarded,” what have you. Oh, yes, person who has never given a thought to disability, I totally believe that you haven’t heard “lame” used to mean “has difficulty walking” before. I totally believe you because you’ve never given a thought to disability before. Why people insist that their ignorance trumps someone else’s knowledge is beyond me.
    .-= Sweet Machine´s last blog ..Quick Hit: Rainbow Bratz =-.

  4. “(I think it was Cara at The Curvature who said that the nice thing about the word “asshole” is that everyone has one).”

    Welll… not strictly true, though I appreciate the sentiment! Some cancer survivors have no asshole.

  5. lauredhel said:

    “Welll… not strictly true, though I appreciate the sentiment! Some cancer survivors have no asshole.

    Eep! Ableism fail on my part. I knew that some people are born without them and doctors surgically construct them–but did not think that some people may not have them.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..New blog of awesomeness =-.

  6. I’ve actually really been enjoying coming up with new swear words to use instead of ableist/sexist/etc language. Right now, my current favourite is “perambulating hatbox.” It works because it’s just so weird that people have to stop and think about it for a moment. Bonus: It’s family-friendly!

  7. This is where we get into a difficult gray area. Since I’m bisexual, I’ll use “gay” as my example. “Gay” used to mean happy or flamboyant, which is why it was used as a slur against effeminate men. But the thing is, “gay” does NOT mean “happy” any more and nobody thinks twice about its current usage. (Much to my aunt’s dismay: 45 years ago, her mother named her Marla Gay Norris, having no idea where the language would turn.)

    So when people say “lame” means “one who cannot walk”, I think it is a usage as archaic as as “gay” meaning “happy”. I’m simply too young to have ever heard anyone use it that way outside of quoting the Bible.

    This isn’t to say that I will stubbornly continue to use the word “lame” as my generation does (meaning “uncool”). I’ll probably just drop it from my vocabulary altogether, because I don’t want to be misunderstood by anyone. My “rights” to use a word don’t trump my compassion for others. But I also won’t hold it against someone who does use it to mean “uncool”, just as I wouldn’t hold it against an elderly person for using “gay” to mean “happy”. (Heck, even “cool” has become integrated into our culture as having two very independent meanings.)

    So here’s the question: when do we as a society decide that a word has taken on such a common usage that we should accept the new definition? When it’s in the dictionary as such? Cuz I just looked up “gay” and it said “a merry, lively mood” as if we’ve all been using it that way for the past 20 years. Do we wait till the general public decides a word has a new meaning, as with “gay” meaning “homosexual”? Should we designate an authority to decide what it means, such as with the recent ad campaign against not using “gay” to mean “something which is socially devalued”?

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t point out how our words can hurt, because they can hurt people very deeply. I’m just saying that at some point if we’re not careful with which words we choose to protest, we’ll have people take us about as seriously as you would take me if I started a campaign to protest that “‘Gay’ means ‘happy’ – stop insulting homosexual males!”

  8. “Perambulating hatbox” amuses me greatly. reminds me of when my eighth grade math teacher stuck his head out in the hall to get some kids who weren’t supposed to be there and were being loud and obnoxious to go away, and he yelled “BIPODAL PREAMBULATION! TRY IT, YOU’LL LIKE IT!” Hee.
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Livejournal =-.

  9. I’m so happy to have come across this blog! Reading it makes me smile 🙂

    But meloukhia, you’ve said so eloquently what I haven’t been able to say about words like “lame.” It has irritated me so much and so often but I can usually not express why in a way to really get others to understand.

    I love this paragraph especially:

    “Which means, actually, you’re totally right when you say a word “doesn’t mean that anymore.” In fact, it’s gone from being a value neutral term used to describe a state of being to being a pejorative. A pejorative so universally accepted that you can expect users to understand exactly what you mean when you say it. When you say “this television show is lame” you mean it’s bad, not worth your time, boring, etc., and here’s the trick: People understand that meaning and they derive it from the word that you have used, because that word is universally accepted as objectively bad.”

    Great post!

  10. Hello, The Nerd! Here’s the problem with your argument about “gay” as an example. And it’s right here in this post “…we don’t talk about what it used to mean.”

    Using “gay” to describe homosexual males is, I believe, generally deemed unoffensive because it’s been claimed as a label by them. And, in fact, the original root of the word plays a role in how it’s used today; it’s clearly derived as a euphemism. “Gay” in the original sense of “happy” is not widespread; dictionaries may be behind (and they often are) but “homosexuality” is listed as a meaning of the word in many of my dictionaries.

    Using “gay” to describe something distasteful, annoying, etc (much in the same sense that “lame” is used) is offensive to homosexual males. As you referenced, when you talked about the “that’s so gay” campaign. Indeed, if a commenter used “gay” in that sense here, the comment would be redacted, because we consider that to be homophobic language and we don’t tolerate that here, because we think that using a word used to describe homosexual males as a pejorative is not appropriate. Lame in the sense of “has difficulty walking” is still in common parlance, in reference to both animals and people. This means that when the word is used as a pejorative, it’s ableist. And that’s why we’re opposed to it.

    Many people seem to bring up the “where do we draw the line/it’s so PC” objection when asked to think about their language usage. This article discusses why that’s a sloppy tactic.

  11. Before making the “but it’s not used that way anymore!” argument, people should probably consider – do you *know* anyone to whom the term would apply in its original usage? If yes, how many such people do you know? Are they from varying places and backgrounds? In other words, how *sure* are you that no one, anywhere, uses the word you are thinking of in its original meaning?

    I get the impression a lot of people say things like “but no one ever uses ‘lame’ for people anymore!” without actually knowing anyone with a mobility impairment. In which case, well, how would you know?
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..randomness =-.

  12. I’m going to presume that your post was meant in good faith and not as a silencing tactic. But you should know, The Nerd, that this isn’t a difficult gray area at all and saying that it is seems to be a favorite pastime of those who want to keep the privilege of using exclusionary language. The only people I’ve heard use ‘gay’ to mean happy merry lively fall into two categories: those who erroneously believe that an ironic tone of voice makes the bigoted things they are saying funny (my brother is among these charming people) and those who complain that the homosexuals ruined a perfectly good word for the normal people. Similarly, there have been enough people with mobility impairments here and elsewhere reporting that ‘lame’ means them that perhaps they should be granted the courtesy of assuming that they can accurately describe their own experiences, all right?

  13. Meloukhia, you might want to know that “toerag” is an insult derived from the socks poor/homeless people wear that get to be rags because the wearer has no money to replace them. Do you want to be using a term that insults the poor and homeless?

    Donning the language police uniform can result in a very tight fit.

  14. See, and this is why we talk about language, mischiefmanager, so that when people use terms with offensive origins and they learn about those origins, they can stop using them! This has nothing to do with being the “language police” and everything to do with using language which does not exclude and marginalize people.

    ETA: Although I would note that the etymological origins of the term in question actually appear to be related to the English penal system, in which convicts would wrap rags around their feet because they could not afford shoes. Which isn’t exactly a pleasant origin either, but I do feel it’s important to do my due diligence when challenged on language use, and I can’t find a source which references the word in a homeless context; could you provide a source?

  15. Outstanding. Our commenter found it appropriate to use a common silencing/derailing tactic in attaching the “language police” (a derivative of the “PC police” canard) to meloukhia while simultaneously correcting her on a point of language. I personally would have found the cognitive dissonance too uncomfortable, but mileage varies.

    It’s been said before but it seems to need repeating: Nothing in this post nor in our Ableist Word Profile series bans the use of any word in any context by any person. We don’t have that power over society, though here we will enforce our comments policy by whatever means we deem appropriate.

    What we are trying to do is to raise awareness that these words are hurtful — and as we are advocates for social justice, we assert that persons who are hurt define harm, not persons doing harm. We hope that people who wish to be less harmful to others, especially to marginalized persons, would use these words less knowing the effects they have.

    If that is policing then so is saying “You’re standing on my foot and it hurts; please move.”

    Consider this a warning, mischiefmanager. Pointing out the use of exclusionary language by contributors and commentors is encouraged. Derailing will not be tolerated.

  16. http://www.peevish.co.uk/slang/t.htm, for instance.

    Well, okay, kaninchenzero, but as standards of hurtfulness differ for everyone, as you say, then anyone can be guilty at any time depending on how the hearer feels. That doesn’t give speakers much to go on, does it? And saying that “then you should just not use hurtful words” begs the question.

    I think this is a useful and important site, and I wish it a long and productive life. I have a lot of questions about this whole area and I’ll be reading with interest.

  17. Fine. Consider me corrected:

    What we are trying to do is to raise awareness that these words are hurtful exclusionary and oppressive — and as we are advocates for social justice, we assert that persons who are hurt excluded and oppressed define harm exclusion and oppression, not persons doing harm the excluding and oppressing. We hope that people who wish to be less harmful exclusionary and oppressive to others, especially to marginalized persons, would use these words less knowing the effects they have.

    This is basic stuff. Racists do not get to define what is racist bigotry; sexists do not get to define what is sexual harrassment. Similarly, those of us who live with physical and mental conditions that mark us as disabled because the societies and environments in which we live fail to provide us access on our terms get to define what is ableist language.

  18. Rargh, I believe my hiptop ate my post. Why you gotta do that, phone ;_;

    @the nerd (and to some extent the people who have already responded to that post)

    I agree that it can be difficult to decide at what point the old meaning is lost to a new one. I’m a strong believer in the idea that language is a living thing, and that it belongs to the people who speak it, not just the people who write dictionaries.

    I had a similar struggle to the one you have, in that it was a word I heard only in relation to animals being lamed, and that as an archaic use, or in the modern context of “a bit crap”. Because I was raised without hearing it used in that context as well, so I just couldn’t understand why people would personally identify with the term. I think everyone here understands that using a term people identify with to say things are generically crap is hurtful, but the ‘language changes’ argument tends to be based NOT on not understanding that side, but on not getting why people would identify with it in the first place.

    But here’s the thing. In my experience, people with extreme difficulty with their hearing or vision are more likely to describe themselves as blind or deaf than as vision or hearing impaired. And it’s not something you’d necessarily think about on our own, but it’s an important point. As someone who isn’t wheelchair bound, but still has difficulty, and may need assistance, walking, how would you identify? How would you describe yourself? ‘I need a cane/walker’ or ‘I’m mobility impaired’ are fine, sure, but they’re also a little more clunky than the way people tend to refer to themselves and their own experiences. Language is lazy. We shortcut all the time, especially when referring to our own experiences. Adn ‘mobility impaired’ is a very broad term, while ‘I need/use (insert assistive device)’ externalises it in a way that feels a bit…odd? Like if I said ‘women and men are both attractive to me’ instead of ‘I’m bi’. It’s still correct, but it seems more passive? Sort of? I don’t know, someone with a deeper knowledge of grammar can probably point out why it feels a bit off.

    But anyway. I thought about it -I mean, a week of sitting there scribbling out pages and pages, trying to work out why it wasn’t working in my head, why it wasn’t clicking the way that all the other hurtful terms did, and I realised that we have two short, pointful, exact terms for that specific range of mobility issue -‘lame’ and ‘crippled’. And I thought about it, and realised that in all honesty, if I ended up in a position where they applied to me, I’d probably identify with them too -because those are the only words that are really there.

    I could be completely off-base. But it resonated for me emotionally in a way that none of the other explanations I’ve seen have. So I hope that’s helpful. I realise I meander a bit, but I didn’t want to write off what you were saying as not a legitimate concern or point because I was there too. 🙂

  19. …if I said ‘women and men are both attractive to me’ instead of ‘I’m bi’. It’s still correct, but it seems more passive? Sort of? I don’t know, someone with a deeper knowledge of grammar can probably point out why it feels a bit off.

    Well, it’s not particularly deep, but the reason is that the first formulation is passive and verbose, and the second is active and concise. That’s like Strunk-White 101.

    It’s really a simple thing which people tediously overthink in search of a slippery excuse to be assholes. If someone whose mobility is impaired (like, I have a chronic hip injury and a cane) is cool with “lame”, fine. If they find that word offensive, that’s their legitimate reaction and right, so don’t use the word, genius. If you write for a broad audience, don’t be shocked that historically-loaded formulations offend, hurt, agitate, and anger people who read those words. If your knowledge is limited (say, you’re too young to understand a word’s history), don’t defend your limitations and ignorance, but rather, be humble enough to learn from those with bigger views and grow. If you make an honest mistake, apologize and adjust. If you insist on offending people, expect them to fight back. What exactly is so complicated about this? It ain’t advanced philosophy. It’s basic human interaction.

    Anyway. Really great blog! Glad you found value in my “PC” essay. 😉 Looking forward to reading here often.

    Peace.

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