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.