Ableist Word Profile: Vegetable

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.

Today’s word: vegetable, in reference to a person in a coma. I hope I don’t need to explain why this is ableist, people.

Here’s an illustrated guide.

These are vegetables:

Photograph of vegetables in large baskets at a farmers market, including eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, summer squash, and bok choy. Image taken by computix and licensed under Creative Commons.
Photograph of vegetables in large baskets at a farmers' market, including eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, summer squash, and bok choy. Image taken by computix and licensed under Creative Commons.

This is a person:

Photograph of a tattooed person with short dark hair crouched in a sea-green bathtub, arms outstretched and head in the tub. Photograph taken by J. Star and licensed under Creative Commons.
Photograph of a tattooed person with short dark hair crouched in a sea-green bathtub, arms outstretched and head in the tub. Photograph taken by J. Star and licensed under Creative Commons.

Vegetables are tasty delicious things which we consume. People are, well, people. People are not vegetables. Ever. There is a medical condition with the unfortunate name Persistent Vegetative State (PVS). The origins of the term are a bit unclear, but I think we can safely assume that they are probably not favourable to people with disabilities. This condition is actually misdiagnosed and confused with other conditions; for example, locked-in syndrome can resemble PVS. I would also like to note, for the record, that it is possible to recover from this state, unlike a vegetable, which cannot recover after you have eaten it.

But just because doctors use the word “vegetative” when discussing a particular medical condition doesn’t mean that you should use it, especially if you are not even using it to refer to that medical condition. Or even that they should use it, honestly. It is unbelievably offensive to call someone a vegetable.

So, when in the heck did we start referring to people as vegetables?!

Around the 1850s, people began using the term to talk about things which were dull, boring, and uneventful; the slang terms “dull as a turnip” and “turnip head” are also relics of the idea that vegetables are boring. By 1921, it was in use to refer to people who lived lives perceived as dull by others. Which is, you know, not very cool, but is also a usage rarely heard today, because when the word is used in reference to people, it is used almost exclusively to talk about people who have experienced traumatic brain incidents and are unconscious, or awake, but not aware.

It’s not really clear which medical condition people are thinking of when they talk about someone as a “vegetable,” although presumably it is supposed to reference a coma or similar state from which someone will not recover. Whatever people are using it to refer to, it needs to stop.

People should not refer to someone in a coma as a “vegetable.” They should use the proper medical term for whatever condition that person actually has. Since that person is not in a state to communicate about which term they would prefer, going with an actual medical diagnosis is reasonable.

This term also shouldn’t be used in a slangy way as in “don’t drink and drive, or you might become a vegetable.” How about just “don’t drink and drive, you might severely injure yourself or others”? Now then. That’s not hard, is it?

Now, here’s a personal anecdote which I think explains why the term “vegetable” offends me so deeply.

A few years ago, a man who had been a friend of mine in high school was involved in a serious car accident. He was airlifted to the nearest hospital capable of dealing with severe trauma, but it quickly became evident that he was not going to recover and was in fact actively dying. So, his family made the choice to donate his still-viable organs.

When I attended the memorial (which included several very touching readings of letters from people who  had received organs from him), I saw a woman walk up to his grieving mother and sister and say “well, at least you did the right thing and donated his organs once you knew he was going to be a vegetable.”

Yeah. Case closed.

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 “Ableist Word Profile: Vegetable

  1. Vegetable (or cabbage) was a general term of abuse which I heard used all the time at boarding school. Despite the fact that it was ostensibly a school for boys with behaviour-related special needs but with high academic potential, one boy clearly wasn’t – he had pronounced autistic tendencies and was certainly very socially inept, and by all accounts wasn’t up to it academically although perhaps that had a lot to do with the constant put-downs he got from others in his year group (which included several of the school’s worst bullies and a couple of pervs as well) but the school had a long record of taking on completely unsuitable pupils because it needed the money. The bullying he received was very upsetting to watch. Anyway, he was the usual recipient of those two terms although it was also applied to anyone else who wasn’t able or willing to fight (who were also called flids, i.e. thalidomides).

    No idea how it came into use in a medical context; the term “persistent vegetative state” is a very recent invention. “Vegetate” has come to mean “to be inactive, like a vegetable” it is actually a descendent of the Latin “vegetare” meaning “to enliven”; the Latin “vegetabilis” meant active, in the sense of growing, and “wake” in English is a cognate. Given how the medical profession clings to its Latin and Greek, it’s amazing that they could get their words so mixed up.

  2. Actually, the medical profession (and English in general) mangles Latin and Greek to a horrific degree. I’m thinking in particular of words which mash Greek and Latin roots together in a classic example of wordfail pie.

    Oddly enough, while I don’t like “vegetable” and the associated “cabbage head,” “turnip head,” etc., I don’t mind “vegetate” or “veg out” and in fact use both frequently. Interesting.

  3. I hate that term. It creates behavior in people which is damaging. I know a man who was in a car accident his junior year of high school. When the EMTs arrived, he was conscious, but by the time he reached the hospital, he had slipped into a coma. Where he stayed, for 8 months.

    Because everyone assumed he was a “vegetable”, the staff at the hospital didn’t bother to properly care for him, and his hands and feet contracted cruelly. He did wake up, and then had to endure surgery after surgery to free his hands and feet from the contraction. The agony was nearly unbearable to him. (He’s a little stiff to this day, and the pain lingers, but he can walk and type.)

    I can see why the hospital staff did that to him, in a way. We don’t care about produce, and that’s what he was to them. He ceased to be a person, and became a squash. That’s shameful.
    .-= Personal Failure´s last blog ..Scientific Facts in the Bible =-.

  4. When I was five years old, my ten years older cousin Sean took some pills a friend gave him (something related to amphetamines, I think.) and it was a massive overdose. He was in what I’ve always been told was a vegetative coma for thirteen months before they turned off life support. What would be a better thing to say there? Just ‘a coma’? I’ve always been under the impression that ‘vegetative coma’ was the medical term for his state.
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Livejournal =-.

  5. Personal Failure (I feel rather bad calling you that!), you bring up a very important point about the damaging ramifications of “vegetable” in a medical context. Misdiagnosis of comas and other brain issues does happen, and when someone is labeled a “vegetable,” it does tend to suggest that the person will not recover, which can create a corresponding lack of interest in supporting the patient. And a lack of interest from the family as well.

    What happened to the man you knew is terrible, and I’ve also read reports of people with locked-in syndrome who have endured similar situations. It sounds, quite frankly, unimaginable.

    Shiyiya, not knowing the specifics of the situation with Sean, I can’t say. I haven’t heard the term “vegetative coma” before; “vegetative” is used in a medical context, though, so it might be the right term in this case. Or, you could just say “coma” and avoid the v-word.

  6. My eldest brother (currently abled) referred to our mother, who has advanced Parkinson’s and dementia and is receiving hospice care, as a vegetable earlier this year. I was so shocked I couldn’t speak — especially since our other brother has been disabled since birth and had to deal with a lot of ableist bullshit. The thing that killed me about it is that she’s *not* gone, not completely — she’s conscious and capable of interaction, if not speech, and she clearly really really really appreciates company. It broke my heart that my brother can’t (or, more likely, chose not to) see that.
    .-= Sweet Machine´s last blog ..Getting to 101 =-.

  7. This is actually something I have been guilty of using off-handedly, when I am having a low spoon day and need to just rest, I would say I needed a “total veg” day, until I thought about what that meant. We catch ourselves too!

  8. This is a terrific post highlight the deliberate and yet offhand dehumanising of disabled people. And yet, all I can do is stare at those delicious, delicious vegetables and salivate! Mmmm, eggplant for dinner tonight!

  9. Your response illustrates that you are able to distinguish between human beings and vegetables! Congratulations! Salivation is an entirely appropriate response to eggplant.

  10. Like Ouyang Dan, I too need to catch myself from talking about ‘just vegging out’. Thanks for the reminder.

    Another anecdote: M, a college classmate of mine (I don’t know her personally, but some friends do) suffered a brainstem stroke in her room, shortly before our graduation. Sadly, she wasn’t found very quickly–it was exam week and people’s privacy was respected–but she was still alive. Unfortunately, after stabilizing her and running tests, the snap diagnosis was PVS. Her mother saw certain signs that led her to believe that that was not the case, that M was at least partially conscious and responding to stimuli, and became a fierce advocate for getting her into studies, alternative healing, and the best care centers. And some of the doctors told her to stop it.

    They were wrong.

    Turns out that M is indeed conscious and responsive more often than not; she has locked-in syndrome, not PVS. While she does have problems with maintaining consciousness and memory that are improving over time, she now has the ability to communicate, express desires, make choices about her environment and be informed about her care. She is on the list for a study for computer access via direct brainwave function, and I hope I hear about a success.

    My point being: if M’s mother, with support from her father, family, and friends, had not been able to be an advocate for her, what would have happened? Why can’t this sort of thing be the automatic response? (Well, obviously, issues with the US healthcare system, for a start, but I think it runs deeper than that.)

  11. @Bene: It’s inexcusable that people would not consider locked-in syndrome when in someone is found in that condition. They can usually move their eyes, and all it takes is to tell them to look one way for yes and the other for no, and ask them a few questions. Eye movements, and an alphabet board, are the usual way such people communicate.

    Were you at Cornell? There was a fairly well-known case of a Cornell student having a brainstem stroke, with the same result, around 1990. Her name is Judy Mozersky. She was 19 at the time and still relies on her eyes to communicate, although she can swallow and has regained facial expressions and a few bits of movement here and there.

  12. Matthew: No, I was at Smith, this was only about three and a half years ago. I hadn’t heard of Judy Mozersky! I am glad to see on googling her that she’s alive, well, and living an active life.

    I think the issue with M was that there was different damage done to her sleep center than what happened to Judy, and it was considerably more difficult for her to retain consciousness. Even so, the fact that it took nearly a year to come to the locked-in syndrome diagnosis is appalling.

  13. OK. No more “vegging out”, although I really think when I apply it to myself as in, deliberately acting like a plant all afternoon (akin to ‘couch potato’) it’s probably not ableist. But boy howdy is “brain dead” ever falling by my personal wayside as an insult.

    Jeez. I can’t believe my own insensitivity sometimes.

    I humbly apologize to anyone I ever offended by using these terms.

  14. Virginia, I am having the same issue! I literally an hour or two before reading this post (I’m doing a big backlog catch-up) wrote a journal entry in which I stated my complete exhaustion and intent to “vegetate” for the next week or so. Now I’m conflicted. I was like you implying that I want to be like a plant, not a coma patient, and have never used the terms interchangeably, and I feel like this is obvious to anyone reading my journal. Still… I wonder what an appropriate pithy replacement would be? Glaciate, maybe. Hmm.

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