On Language, Again

(Textual note: “ou” is used as a neutral third person pronoun in this text, by preference of the author.)

Hello everybody! It’s your friendly neighborhood Language Police Officer1 here, to write about language. Again.

The response to the Ableist Word Profile series has been, well, tremendous. Some readers are telling us that it’s their favourite feature, and engaging in the comments in all kinds of exciting ways. Other people are not so excited about it and it’s become a rather controversial series as a result. So, let’s discuss the issues which come up on those threads today, shall we?

There are a couple of themes which seem to come up over and over again in the comment threads on posts in the Ableist Word Profile series, and I’d like to break them down a bit, because I would rather not see them come up in the future. And, for those of you who are trying to get people in your own lives to modify their language usage, deconstructions of these arguments may be helpful.

“I don’t use this word this way, so it’s not bad.”

So, here’s the problem with this argument: It relies on the idea that your personal definition of a word overrides the one decided upon by society, or the generally accepted meaning known by most people. Let’s say that I decided that all cars are going to be called “hatboxes.” I’m probably going to encounter some pushback when I talk about taking my hatbox to the dealer for repairs, offer someone a ride in my hatbox, etc. This is because I’m using a word in a way which society doesn’t generally accept, and it confuses people. This issue is taken to a whole new level in the case of exclusionary language, because while you may think your word use is appropriate, it is upsetting to others.

If, for example, you grew up thinking that a slur was an appropriate word to use to describe a particular group of people/type of person, and were gently informed that this was not the case and replied “but I don’t use this word pejoratively,” you would probably encounter some resistance. Because even though you may not mean it in that way, other people read it that way.

“You can’t tell me what language I can and can’t use.”

You’re right! I can’t. All I and my fellow contributors can do is present information about the origins and roots of words, why some people feel that they are offensive, and ask you to examine your language use. I’m not saying that you must stop using particular words, I’m not saying that if you stop using them, ableism will magically go away, I’m just saying “hey, here’s some information you may not have known about the origins of a word and the way in which it is perceived.”

You are, in fact, allowed to decide for yourself about how you want to use language. But, being aware of the fact that some people find certain language offensive, you might  choose to use your words more carefully, in the interests of good faith communication which does not marginalize people. Just like I don’t call someone “fat” unless I know that ou identifies with the fat acceptance movement and views “fat” as a neutral adjective or even a positive thing, because I accept that some people find this word offensive and pejorative, and I prioritize their feelings and experiences over my desire to use this word2.

“It’s not used in that sense anymore, so it’s ok.”/”You’re focusing too much on the origins of the word, not the modern usage.”

Well, actually, in a lot of cases in the Ableist Word Profile, these words are still used in this sense, and some are retained in diagnostic terms. And, furthermore, in the case of many of these words, even if they aren’t in active use, there are people who are alive who remember the original sense of the word. There are people alive who had this word used against them in a diagnostic context. There are people alive who were institutionalized, oppressed, forcibly sterilized, etc because of how these words were used. There are people who would be alive today if ableism didn’t exist. Which is something to keep in mind.

And you’re right, we do focus on word origins. Because origins are important. We have to get at the roots of language to see how it evolves. And, in the case of ableist words, these roots are in ableism. The reason that these words are effective insults is because of ableism. Hence, when people use them, they are reinforcing ableist culture.

“I’ve never heard this word used this way.”/”In another language, this word doesn’t mean this.”

Wait. Are you telling me that the experiences of all people are different? Because that’s a huge part of this website. It is entirely possible that you haven’t heard an ableist word used in the context we are writing about. No one’s denying that. It’s also possible that you heard it used that way, but didn’t realize it.

As for foreign languages, well, they’re foreign languages. We would love to have profiles up on ableist words in other languages, but until we do, it’s not appropriate to translate and decide that we must be wrong because the word we are discussing in English doesn’t mean the same thing in another language. Just like if we put up a post on an ableist word in, say, Spanish, I’m not going to plunge in and say “well in English it doesn’t mean that or carry those connotations, so you are obviously wrong.” (By the way…seriously, bilingual readers? If you are interested in doing multilingual content for us, please let us know!)

“Are you telling me that I’m lacking in intelligence because I didn’t know about the origins of this word?”

No, we’re not. If you didn’t know about the origins of the word, now you do, and you can decide for yourself about whether or not you want to keep using it. Lack of knowledge has nothing to do with “intelligence.” A lot of assumptions are made in our society about the value of intelligence/certain kinds of intelligence, and we try to avoid that here, respecting the fact that people think, process information, and operate in different ways. Thus, we don’t view one particular kind of intelligence as more valuable than another, and we also don’t think that people are somehow inadequate because they don’t know every little thing about the English language. You cannot be held responsible for something you do not know.

Why would we run this series at all, if we thought that everyone knew already? We’re running it because we recognize that people don’t know and might appreciate being better informed about language origins! And because some people even find it interesting to explore word origins!

“My friend with a disability uses this word, so it’s ok.”

This is called tokenizing. It’s also a form of the availability heuristic. And it’s not a good way to argue, because this series is about generalized perceptions, not individual experiences. It’s about how ableist words are used to oppress people with disabilities as a group, not about how our opinions about word usage override the opinions of individuals. If someone with developmental disabilities identifies as retarded, for example, that is that person’s right, and we are never going to police identity and reclamatory word use.

We are also not saying that individual people with disabilities are not allowed to use words we have profiled in the AWP. One, because this series isn’t about “allowing” people to do/not do anything, and two, because it’s not our business to tell people how to self-label. People can use these words in a reclamatory and empowering fashion and we think that’s awesome.

It’s also important to think about this “friend” uses the word. Someone with a different gait who uses “lame” self-referentially might be deflecting, self-deprecating, or might genuinely identify as lame and prefer to have this word used to refer to ou gait. Does that mean you should refer to all people with different gaits as lame? Or, that you should  use “lame” as a pejorative when you know that it’s a word your friend uses to affirm identity? Or even that you should use “lame” to refer to your friend?

“I don’t agree that this word is ableist.”

That’s fine. Really. You can weigh the information provided in the post and the comments and still come away feeling that the word under discussion is not ableist. We aren’t here to tell you what/how to think. Really. We encourage independent thinking.

But, here’s my question: Knowing that a particular word use hurts someone, would you continue using it around that person? I make modifications to my language all the time to be respectful to people who have informed me that specific words/constructions hurt them. I don’t have to agree with them to do this, I can privately think that they are being completely wrongheaded, but I can respect their position, modify my language, and not try to argue. It’s not an immense hardship, and it’s a decent thing to do.

“The feelings of people with disabilities and advocates are not as important as my right to use this word.”

Ahem. No.

All experiences and feelings are valid. Even those which you disagree with. In this particular space, we center the voices of women with disabilities because they are so often silenced, marginalized, and ignored. Thus, this particular argument is going to be frowned upon to a high degree.

You can disagree with someone, while still respecting that person’s opinion as valid. You can believe, for example, that “weak” is not an ableist word, but when someone says “when this word is used as a pejorative, it hurts me,” that person’s experience is valid. That person is saying that something you are doing is hurtful. Since that person is a member of a marginalized group, that person’s experience overrides your opinion about whether or not a word is acceptable to use. It does not override your right to use it, but it does mean that when you use it, you do so with the knowledge that you are hurting someone.

“The alternatives you suggest just aren’t as strong.”

Well, ok, for starters, those are jumping off points. We’re not running a thesaurus service here. Those are meant to jumpstart a conversation about alternatives to ableist language, not to lay out the law on the alternatives everybody should use.

But let’s talk about this, the strongness argument. It goes like this: “I need a really bad word to use here.” So, ok. Sometimes people do terrible or extremely upsetting things and you want a strong word to describe that. I respect that. But here’s the thing; when you decide to use an ableist word to do that, you are reinforcing ableism. (Just like using sexist language reinforces sexism, etc.) Because the reason that ableist language makes such a great “really bad word” is because of ingrained cultural values about disability. The reason that the alternatives don’t seem as strong is because, well, they don’t rely on commonly held social attitudes to generate a pithy insult.

If we didn’t live in an ableist society, calling someone an ableist term wouldn’t carry any strength and force. It’s the ableism behind the term that makes it strong. So you’ve got a choice: You can decide to stop using words which are hurtful, recognizing that sometimes it is really hard, or you can decide to keep using those words, recognizing that this contributes to the perpetuation of ableism.

Here’s our contributor Amandaw on this very issue:

Maybe there isn’t a replacement for certain problematic words and phrases. Maybe there isn’t another word or phrase you can use instead, or another way to express the same thought.

Consider that maybe that is an acceptable loss compared to reinforcing a culture that beats, rapes, institutionalizes, and kills many people based on exactly those concepts. (Source)

This concludes our presentation of common objections to discussions about ableist language!

It’s important to stress that no one is telling you how to speak, which language you should use, that you must agree with the assertion that particular words are ableist. What is being asked of you is to explore word origins with us, and to look at how other people may perceive a word, even if you personally do not perceive the word in the same way. If you take this information into account and decide to keep on using that word, that’s fine. Just be aware that, by doing so, you may hurt, marginalize, or upset people. And that those reactions are entirely valid.

  1. Hey, if people are going to call me that, I’m gonna claim the label. Now give me my badge and gun!
  2. This is not an invitation to discuss whether or not “fat” is a bad word in the comments, I’m merely using it as an example of a word which is used in an insulting context as well as a reclamatory one.

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 “On Language, Again

  1. I have an obnoxious language question. 🙂 I’m familiar with “ou” as an epicene pronoun, but I only remember it as a subject pronoun. Are you using it as a possessive pronoun (to refer to ou gait) as a matter of convenience?

    I have no quibble with it – just curious. I would very much love for English to have gender-neutral pronouns in standard usage.

  2. Not an obnoxious language question at all, LeeLee! I use “ou” as a catchall gender neutral third person pronoun (because I don’t like zie, etc.). “Ou” actually has some basis in English usage (as does “a,” which would be confusing since most people would read that as the indefinite article “a”, which is why I do not use it). I, too, would like English to have gender neutral pronouns, and it would be particularly lovely if all of us who are using them right now could settle on, you know, ONE to use and stick with it, as that might encourage others to start using nongendered pronouns when referring to generic unknown people as well as specific nonbinary folks. (Singular “they” causes me to shudder; the only justifications I’ve seen for it cite bowdlerized texts which were edited to insert a singular they to replace a gendered pronoun.)

  3. As someone who has studied multiple languages, the “it’s ok in x language” stuff makes no sense at all. I could write volumes on this. Basically, things don’t always translate well. Also there are certain cultural aspects in one language that aren’t in another. Calling someone a shoe in English would be ok (kind of weird but ok). Calling someone a shoe in Arabic could get you in a fight (I saw this happen when I lived in Egypt for 2 months). It’s a very insulting. I can’t even think of something that would be an English equivalent.

  4. Fantastic post. Thank you so much for this. I run into these arguments all of the time when asking people not to use homophobic slurs, ableist slurs, misogynist slurs, etc.

    ““Ou” actually has some basis in English usage”

    Really? Off to look that up!

  5. On the tangent – I read an article about a school in… Philadelphia? maybe? where the kids started using “yo” has a gender-neutral pronoun.

    On-topic: I am going to bookmark this post and whip it out all the time. Thanks!

  6. Wow. What an insightful article! Now I have something to point people at when they use the word “slut” or “whore” or any number of other insulting words. Not just for ableist words anymore!

  7. “But, here’s my question: Knowing that a particular word use hurts someone, would you continue using it around that person? I make modifications to my language all the time to be respectful to people who have informed me that specific words/constructions hurt them. I don’t have to agree with them to do this, I can privately think that they are being completely wrongheaded, but I can respect their position, modify my language, and not try to argue. It’s not an immense hardship, and it’s a decent thing to do.”

    This is just such a simple concept that it is unfathomable to me that more people don’t get it. What the problem is, at its base, is a fundamental feeling of entitlement. It amazes me that anyone can prioritize their “right” to use language that is offensive and demoralizing to other people over the right of other people to feel safe and feel that their concerns are being validated. This is privilege at its worst — the belief that one’s own need for convenience (even when what is being requested is a negligible inconvenience) trumps another person’s feelings.

  8. “It’s okay in x language” makes absolutely no sense at all. Languages being *different* and all – I’ve actually been spending some time thinking about ableism in the German language, and suspect that one of the reasons I have a much easier time identifying as “disabled” than as “behindert” although they mean the same thing is that “behindert” is used as a catch-all perjorative in German, much like “lame” or “gay”. (This has made me so so glad that “disabled” has as far as I can see so far escaped that treatment.) Although I find the instances of parallel development quite telling as well – e.g. the German words for “gay” and “lame” have perjorative meanings pretty much exactly corresponding to the ones in English (although the one for “lame” is less widely used and has a more specific meaning, I think), and there’s also a shortening of “Spastiker”. Seeing similar words follow the same trajectories in different languages really makes you see how the underlying attitudes are the same.

    […\linguistic digression]

    And so much WORD to this post. There is no language police, nobody is going to turn up at your door in the middle of the night and arrest you for using ableist language. All people are saying is THAT CERTAIN THINGS ARE OFFENSIVE AND WHY. If you want to keep using it, nobody is stopping you, just be aware that you are hurting people.

    Sheesh.

    (I’ve seen a few posts attacking the ableist language series – “oh my god, I’m suddenly not allowed to use all these words I like!” “I’m a writer, how dare you try to limit the words I can use!” “My characters wouldn’t speak like that anyway!” and it really pisses me off. ><)

  9. “I’m a writer, how dare you try to limit the words I can use!”

    As a writer, this is my all time number one favourite objection to the AWP. Because, uhm, the whole point of being a writer is to be creative. For me, thinking about language more has been exciting because it has expanded my vocabulary, helped me focus and be more precise with my language.

  10. Yes! Exactly! I’ve had a similar experience – it’s made me realise just how much I use parts of ableist language as a cheap and easy shortcut to the effect I want. It’s like, I can’t be bothered putting in the effort to actually describe why I think this thing sucks, so I’ll just compare them to disabled people! That’ll make people think it sucks! And it’s like, like you’re fixing something with kiddie glue instead of properly with nails because you can’t be bothered to put in the time to do it properly. And then you complain when people say “uh, maybe you shouldn’t be using kiddie glue” because zomg you’re a CRAFTSMAN (craftswoman?) and how DARE people try to take your tools away from you? Except that the kiddie glue is made up out of the blood and tears of disabled people and… okay this metaphor is going very strange places.

  11. great post.

    an aside to your aside, meloukhia.

    you said: “(Singular “they” causes me to shudder; the only justifications I’ve seen for it cite bowdlerized texts which were edited to insert a singular they to replace a gendered pronoun.)”

    i use they/them as my pronoun, and i certainly dont need to justify it. Since we’re talking about challenging and changing language, i think considering the fabulousness of everyones pronoun preferences, without any required justifications, is a good thing.

  12. So much concurring on the can people please pick ONE word or set of words for gender-neutral pronouns. I can think of like, half a dozen variations and it is confusing as all hell. (Especially because one of said variations uses ‘shi’ as one of the pronouns, and I use Shi as a nickname…..)

    Erm, more ontopic! I really really don’t get people who are all RAGH YOU CANNOT MAKE ME STOP USING THIS WORD. I do not understand the lack of empathy involved at ALL. Someone tells me something bothers them, I STOP DOING IT (or at least make a serious effort to – I’m human and all, mistakes occur). I don’t get being furious at someone calling you on being offensive. (Terminally embarrassed at having said something hurtful without thinking, yes, but actively angry, no)

    I think I had a point here, but I read Kaz’s comment while I was typing and now I’m just amused at the strange wandering metaphor.

    (Oh, and now I keep picking out things that are ableist in songs and trying to decide if it’s the songwriter’s prejudice or that of the character in the song. It’s driving me up the wall a bit because I like enjoying art-things uncritically but I’m really bad at turning off that bit of my brain :P)
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Hmmmm…. =-.

  13. These posts on language are so, so amazing. I’ve been using them frequently when calling people out on their ableist language. It’s so handy to be able to just pop a link at someone, rather than trying to find adequate words to explain to them why what they are doing is wrong. So thanks, for saving me spoons and making life a little easier when calling people out!

  14. Oh yeah, romham, it’s fine for other people to use it, it’s just not for me; that comment was not intended to be some sort of judgment on people who do opt to use a singular they.

  15. Awesome. I was just having a conversation about ableist language, and things like the strongness argument came up. I really enjoyed reading this, and I’m going to link it to my conversation partner because I think he’ll enjoy it too.

    (It’s really funny how prescient this site is. Whenever a conversation comes up off the internet about ableism, without fail the next time I check FWD/Forward it’s covered here!)

  16. But how do you approach people who refuse to listen?

    I think I’d actually be thrilled if my sister used “lame” instead of “gay” as her go-to “you/that sucks!” word.

    I’m trying to wean her off homophobia… she’s the type of person who hears about white/cis/strait/etc privilege and assumes you’re accusing her of being bad.

    Shiyiya – second the terminally embarrassed. See (please don’t) my foot in mouth with each post on the chatterday thread.

    My sister and her really lovely friends – http://ohmonkeytrumpets.blogspot.com/2009/03/something-that-pissed-me-off.html

    And it’s so damned stupid that I can’t think of anything to say back. Not that it matters if I do say something. I tried to get John and Beck to stop using “gay” as pejorative, so they switched to homosexual.

  17. meloukhia said:
    “Oh yeah, romham, it’s fine for other people to use it, it’s just not for me; that comment was not intended to be some sort of judgment on people who do opt to use a singular they.”

    Well in that case, no justifications would be needed, right? Being told that my pronoun makes someone shudder is a judgement. It’s certainly not the first time i’ve heard that and worse, but i want this to be a space without that kind of stuff is all. Just offering some food for thought.

  18. romham, I’m very sorry that I offended you with my comment; I certainly would not ask anyone to justify which pronouns they use, and why, and I apologize for making you feel judged, as that is most definitely against the FWD ethos.

  19. @Kaitlyn:

    I think I’d actually be thrilled if my sister used “lame” instead of “gay” as her go-to “you/that sucks!” word.

    I understand that this kind of activism is frustrating, but I want to challenge this statement. Why is it less bad to malign disabled people than gay people? And remember, people can be both disabled and gay.

    There are other words to use as insults that do not insult someone’s identity. My favorite is “fool” becuase it’s occupational– someone can act or play the fool, it means mistaken, or to be like a court jester. It’s an identity, but not an oppressed one.

    And when you are arguing with someone who won’t listen, I think sometimes the best thing to do is to back away, to remove yourself from the situation if possible, to protect your emotional safety. If you can’t get away, try changing the subject. It is hardest with family.

  20. You know, I’ve been struggling with the concept of ableist language for a while. I’ve written about excising the “r” word from our vocabulary, but I’ve never been really convinced that I should do the same with “idiot” or “lame”.

    But. You said

    “And, in the case of ableist words, these roots are in ableism. The reason that these words are effective insults is because of ableism. Hence, when people use them, they are reinforcing ableist culture.”

    And

    “If we didn’t live in an ableist society, calling someone an ableist term wouldn’t carry any strength and force. It’s the ableism behind the term that makes it strong. So you’ve got a choice: You can decide to stop using words which are hurtful, recognizing that sometimes it is really hard, or you can decide to keep using those words, recognizing that this contributes to the perpetuation of ableism.”

    And now I don’t know what to think, what to do. What should I do when my friend use these words? What word should I use when I’m expressing disgust or frustration at a mistake I’ve made? Can a word ever evolve enough to move completely away from its ableist roots, and how would I know?

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