Ableist Word Profile: -wit

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.

  1. I’m not a prude, but I know some people find this word triggering, so I’m opting to censor it here.

12 Comments

  1. Nominal aphasia: not fun. Being made fun of because nouns frequently escape me: infuriating.

    (Note to those not familiar with aphasia: It affects only spoken communication. I can write just fine, and is why I much prefer blogging or emailing to speaking.)

  2. This is all absolutely true, but I think it’s worth mentioning that making fun of people for lack of knowledge is frequently classist, so it’s not necessarily ok either.

  3. Absolutely, Sophie; I would hope that no part of this post implied that it is acceptable to “make fun of” people for not knowing something.

  4. I’ve never used “nitwit” or “halfwit”, though I have to admit I have used “f*ckwit”. “Halfwit” is one of those words that I learnt when I was quite young and I didn’t like it then and still don’t, but I never made the connection between “halfwit” and “f*ckwit”. Thank you.

  5. Thank you for this post. A few years ago I began making a concerted effort at being aware of the history and implications of the language I use, especially when I’m using language to express frustration or dissatisfaction with someone (cursing without marginalizing might seem like an odd thing to think about, but I curse a lot!). I was shocked to discover so many of the words I grew up using without a second thought turned out to be from eugenics and IQ scales.

    I have never used -wit words, but I am glad they’re on my radar now.

  6. Not really adding anything substantial, but I’d like to suggest an alternative origin for the phrase ‘nitwit’…

    Here in the UK, ‘Nits’ are a term for head lice. Given that those suffering from lice are generally characterised as dirty, poor, and “too stupid to get rid of them” ( I quote a friend of mine here), I think it’s possible that this phrase has a double insult attached – one being that the person has the intelligence of a louse (or ‘bugs in the brain” as a relative puts it), and the other being that the person is also dirty and ‘infested’.

    Neither being a particularly nice thing to say.

  7. Yes, Kezmoo, there are some troubling classist associations with “nitwit” as well, although the etymology dictionaries I consulted seem pretty confident about the Yiddish origins. (We use “nits” in the same sense in the States, too.) It’s a great example of a word with very clear origins which can also be associated with unrelated origins thanks to the way in which society views poverty and class status, thus turning it into an exclusionary doubleheader.

  8. “problems expressing themselves”

    My child when in school would cry and say “I know it in my brain but I can’t get it out of my mouth or on to the paper” and I know that feeling……

  9. “…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.”

    You sure? I’ve always loved the quick witted denizens of the Algonquin Round Table -especially Dorothy Parker- and I’m the complete opposite, extremely slow witted for the reasons you explained in your post (I’m autistic and have trouble speaking and it takes me much longer to process language, getting jokes, and sarcasm, etc.)
    I’m not the least bit ashamed of that, (and why should I?) and I can still appreciate people for being quick witted.
    And speaking of slow-witted, it’s possible that I’ve missed the point. (Please correct me if I didn’t get it.)
    .-= Kowalski´s last blog ..NaNoWriMo: Harold and Maude =-.

  10. Yes, I’m quite sure. Implying that certain forms of humour/art/etc are inherently better because they are “more intelligent” is most definitely ableist.

    That doesn’t mean that you, personally, can’t prefer certain types of humour and joking, including the snappy repertoire for which people like Dorothy Parker are known and loved. I have very specific tastes in humour, after all, as does everyone else; this isn’t about what people should/shouldn’t like (after all, dictating things like that is not very feminist), it’s about how society as a whole views these things. Society as a whole prizes this type of humour because it thinks that intelligence is more valuable.

    Nor is this about whether or not people ought to be ashamed of things (although I personally prefer that people not be ashamed of aspects of their personality). Or about how people should think; this whole series is about examining social attitudes and social thinking and the ways in which we unconsciously reinforce them with our own words and actions.

    On another level, I find it extremely uncomfortable when I am exposed to humour which exploits perceived intellectual shortcomings, in which people with these shortcomings are used as the butt of a joke. Again, I think this is ableist, just like a joke which uses racial stereotypes as “humour” is racist.

  11. I really don’t mean to be difficult. (And, as of today, this is the only other addition to the Ableist Word Profile where I’ve found myself frowning and muttering “that doesn’t add up”. The others make a lot of sense, and I hope you do one of “fool” soon!) I found the analysis fascinating, but I reached a different conclusion. Mainly, I don’t see any evidence that –wit was used to refer primarily to someone with a disability. It is an insult having to do with thought and knowledge, and there are implications of inferiority and expressions of frustration, but I don’t see that this word has been used to oppress and discriminate against whole populations, as is claimed.

    It does, clearly, imply that people who reach the same conclusion as the speaker are superior. But that’s not intrinsically ableist. It can absolutely be used to refer to people with disabilities, but so can any insult. Does that make the word intrinsically ableist?

    Literal meaning, I find, is of little help here. Words are not constrained to their dictionary definitions. You do a great job of looking at how the word is used and how society thinks about intelligence–the last being very definitely ableist! And so I can see how the word could be used in an ableist manner. But…

    Well here, let me see if I can say it this way.

    ““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.”

    It can certainly be used to say just that. But I think that if we look at the word’s actual usage, we’ll find that it refers to a nondisabled person who has certain mental facilities available but doesn’t use them. Someone who can add, but is careless or hurried and writes down 2 + 2 = 5. Someone who is acting thoughtless or stupid. And I think that’s a crucial difference.

    I don’t buy that just because a word has to do with intelligence, it is ableist. Because I find the same condition that you reference–people confounding different concepts with this idea of “intelligence”, and not actually referring to any disability.

    So that’s my defense of the insult. Which is a weird thing to do.

    BUT. I wanted to say “hear, hear!” a few times as I was reading this and the comments, so I figure now is a good time?

    Mainly, I too hate jokes where someone’s lack of intelligence–not problem solving skills, not knowledge, but intelligence, whatever that is–is the butt of the joke. That’s ableist. Society’s attitudes about intelligence in general? Are ableist. Insulting someone because you consider them less intelligent? Is ableist. Absolutely. I question whether or not the words one uses in these situations are intrinsically ableist, but I have no such quibbles about the context itself. Which makes living in this society rather difficult.

  12. Let’s make sure that we are all on the same page here, because this is an intersectional issue; “-wit” words combine elements of ableism and classism.

    You accept the argument that there is a history of discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities, it would appear. Let’s keep in mind also that there is a history of discrimination against people with a wide range of neuroatypicality: People discriminate people against people who do not acquire and process information in the same way that they do. I’m going to assume, for the sake of simplicity, that you also accept this argument.

    It also appears that you accept the argument that there is a history of discrimination against people who lack access to education, which can be a result of class, ability status, or both. (As seen, for example, when parents of neuroatypical children who are also of lower class status have difficulty accessing needed services for their kids.)

    Where you appear to be experiencing difficulties is with the idea that language which priviledges certain types of brains over others is ableist, so I’m going to try to break this down a bit for you.

    When we want to insult someone who is “acting…stupid,” we use language which has been historically used against people who are neuroatypical, whichever form that it happens to take. This language carries weight because people understand that it’s a form of shorthand which refers to people who think differently than they do. And by “think differently” I don’t mean “disagree,” I mean “process, acquire, and handle information in ways which are different.” In fact, this language means a “person who [may have] certain mental facilities available but doesn’t use them,” as you put it. As a neuroatypical, I’ve been repeatedly told to “use your brain” and to “think harder” by people who believe in that exact sentiment: That I have the “faculty” and I’m just not using it. But it’s not that simple. I may have the “faculty,” but I can’t access it, because I do not process information in the way that neurotypical folks do.

    So, when I hear a word like “nitwit” to describe someone who (seems to be) able, I’m hearing a reinforcement of the idea that certain types of processing are more valuable and “better” than others. I don’t know, interacting with someone on a limited level, why that person does not think the way that I do. Maybe people writing 2+2=5 have dyscalculia, for example. Maybe they aren’t “thoughtless and stupid,” maybe their brains just doesn’t work the way mine does. The objective valuation of brains which work in a certain way is definitely ableist, I think you would agree, and terms which are rooted in this idea are also ableist, whether or not they are being used to describe a person with disabilities, because they reference a culture of ableism. They are insults because of social attitudes which reinforce the idea that some brains are better than others.

    I am a bit disturbed by the language you used here which seemed to suggest that language is only ableist when used against people with disabilities; I’m not sure you actually meant that, but it’s how it reads. Ableist language is ableist not because it is used against disabled persons, but because it references disability in a negative way. “Lame,” for example, is ableist whether or not it’s being used to discuss someone with a different gait, because it carries the implications that to have an “abnormal” gait is bad. Just as words like “idiot” and “-wit” carry the implications that an “abnormal” brain is bad.

    More to the point; if you want to say that someone is genuinely being, say “thoughtless,” or careless, why not just say that? Why use a word which carries a history of ableism when there’s a perfectly good word to use instead?