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 ableist word profile: On the appendage of “-wit” as a suffix to another word to make an insult, as in nitwit, halfwit, f*ckwit1, etc. To be clear, this ableist word profile is not on the word “wit” in the sense of “funny or amusing,” but rather on the use of the word “wit” in slang terms which are meant to imply that someone is “stupid,” as judged by the speaker. As kaninchenzero discussed in her profile on “Intelligence,” the historic reification of intelligence and insistence upon valuation of a particular kind of intelligence has been particularly damaging to people with disabilities. Using “-wit” is a suffix in a supposedly pithy insult is a great example of the way in which ableist modes of thinking are embedded into our very language.
“Wit” in the sense of “mental capacity” comes from Germanic roots, and has been used in English to refer not just to intelligence, but also to knowledge, and to thought processing (three different things) for a very long time. In the sense of being amusing or funny, the word dates to around the 1500s, and since being witty is usually associated with being “clever,” there are actually some ableist overtones to this sense of the word as well, like the idea that you need to be “clever” to be funny, and that some types of humour are more valuable than others.
“Nitwit” appeared around the 1920s, and appears to have Yiddish origins, with “nit” meaning “nothing,” so a “nitwit” is literally someone who is deemed lacking in intelligence or thought processing abilities. Which is not a terribly nice thing to say about someone. Calling someone a “halfwit” isn’t much better, and likewise with “f*ckwit.” All of these things play into the idea that intelligence is something which can be objectively measured and should be objectively valued. Using the F word evokes a whole new set of issues and overtones which I don’t have time to delve into here.
There are a lot of words we use to insult people when we think that they are not intelligent, or are not acting in an intelligent way. What’s interesting about the way we use these words is that a lot of them insult people not for lack of natural intelligence (whatever that is), but for lack of knowledge. We say that someone is being a “nitwit” when they don’t know the facts of a matter, that someone is being a “f*ckwit” when they are being obstinate or recalcitrant from a lack of knowledge about a situation, that someone is a “halfwit” if ou fails to grasp a situation immediately.
It fascinates me to see that people have equated knowledge and intelligence when in fact these are two separate issues, and the ability to process information is still another issue. Someone can have lots of knowledge but not know how to apply it, someone can have the ability to acquire information but lack the ability to access information resources, and so forth. As a culture, though, we’ve decided that these three things are the same and that people who are “below” our level are lesser than us, which is a rather interesting state of affairs.
And it’s really damaging to people with disabilities who use communication systems other than spoken languages, to people who are not neurotypical, to people who have aphasia and other problems expressing themselves. These people were historically written off as “halfwits” simply because they couldn’t communicate in a way which satisfied the social norms. It wasn’t about their “mental capacity” or “native intelligence” but about, literally, the fact that they couldn’t communicate.
So, when you’re calling someone a “somethingwit,” you are referring to the historical oppression of people with differing communication systems, to the oppression of people who are neuroatypical, to people who think and acquire knowledge differently.
When seeking alternatives, it all comes back to this: What do you really mean when you call people nitwits? Do you mean that they lack knowledge to which you have access? That they did something wrong? That they are being closedminded? That they are frustrating you? That they don’t think the way you do? (It’s ok to say that someone doesn’t think like you do, as long as you aren’t placing a value judgments on it.)
Or, are you passing a value judgment? Are you really saying “this person is stupid” when you call someone a “nitwit”? Because, if you are, seeking out alternatives is about more than plugging in the word or phrase that describes what you really mean. It’s about changing your way of thinking and the way, in particular, that you think about intelligence/knowledge/communication/thought processing.
- I’m not a prude, but I know some people find this word triggering, so I’m opting to censor it here. ↩