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:
This is a person:
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.