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.
I was working on something the other day and I unconsciously used the word “scab” to refer to temporary non-union workers brought in to break up a strike. And, as soon as I finished typing it, I said “hey, wait a minute!” So I took a break and researched the origins of the word to confirm my suspicions that it was ableist, and made a note to do an ableist word profile on it at some point in the reasonably near future.
Workers’ rights is a big topic of interest to me, as is organized labour and the use of unionization to advocate for the welfare of workers. Thus, I do not look fondly upon strikebreakers. I’ve always heard them called “scabs” and used “scab” myself without really thinking about its origins, but it takes only a cursory glance and thought to realize that the word is ableist; after all, what’s a scab? It’s a crust that forms on a sore or wound. And some people with disabilities have conditions which cause chronic scabbing. In fact, I have a condition which causes chronic scabbing, because I have eczema, so I’ve been using a word which is injurious to me, personally, for years.
“Scab” actually entered English around 1250, in the sense of “skin disease.” Scab as in “crust which forms on a sore” didn’t come into use until almost 200 years later, and “scab” as in “strikebreaker” is from the early 1800s. The word is derived from the Old English for “scratch/itch,” and is closely related to “scabies,” a condition which causes intense itching. And subsequent scratching. And, often, scabbing.
Why did we start referring to strikebreakers as “scabs”? We’ve actually got to take a trip back in time to 1590 to find out, because that’s when the word first started being used to describe a “despicable person,” since apparently people with scabs are despicable. These origins may have some class overtones as well, since people of lower class status are more likely to injure themselves/have untreated wounds and poorly managed skin conditions which result in scabbing. At any rate, the term was borrowed in the late 1700s to refer to people who didn’t join trade unions, and this use explains why we use it to refer to strikebreakers, since some people view strikebreakers as rather despicable.
The ableist origins of this word are clear; we’re using yet another term used to describe a medical condition/symptom as a pejorative. In this case, the medical uses of this word are alive and well. Everyone understands the meaning of scab in relation to health, and many people are also familiar with the pejorative use of the word. As someone who’s actually pretty scabby at the moment, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I never really connected the dots with this word, but now that I have, I’m eliminating it from my word use.
So, what’s an alternative to “scab,” for those who want to be able to say “temporary workers brought in to break up a strike” in a way which conveys sufficient rage and irritation? Well, there’s always “strikebreaker.”
I think it’s also important to note here that while I find the actions of strikebreakers pretty despicable, it’s a complicated issue. Many people hired as strikebreakers are actually unaware of the fact that they are being hired to break a strike, with employers transporting them in such a way that they are not aware they are passing a picket line. Companies have also been known to use people who do not speak the language in a region where a strike is occurring, with the goal of keeping workers ignorant about the circumstances of their employment. Some people may also feel some moral qualms about being involved in unionbusting activity, but they may be forced to accept work as temporary labourers by their financial positions. Things are never as black and white as we want them to be.