Category Archives: Ableist Word Profile

Ableist Word Profile: You’re so OCD!

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.

Someone walks into my kitchen for the first time looking for something they will more than likely find the cupboards nicely arranged.  I like things with the labels facing out, neatly lined up, dressed to the front.  I like to have like items together (my cooking items are in a separate area from my baking items, and snacks, to begin to scratch the surface) to make it easier to find things.  Our Korean apartment is smaller than we are used to in some areas, so being organized is a must when it comes to storage.  We have Tupperware canisters lining the counter tops with frequent used and bulk items in easy reach, and also in the fridge w/ the produce already prepped.  When we bring meat home from the market we divide it into portions and vacuum seal it before storing it.  Some of this is for space sake, some of it is because I like to cook and will use spoons I sometimes steal from elsewhere to do so, and having the kitchen arranged as such makes that easier.  I have had more than one guest wander through the kitchen chuckling and mention to me how OCD it is (which really doesn’t make sense if you think about the acronym).

No.  My kitchen is clean.  It is neat.  It is sometimes meticulous (when the dishes are done), it is user friendly, well organized, color coded, over-the-top arranged, even.  My aunt would say you could eat off of my floors (some days, but we do have a seven year old).

OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, isn’t just the tendency to keep things all tidy like Mary Poppins on a sugar rush.  It doesn’t mean that you like your clothes hung in chromatic order or your socks folded a certain way, or even that you sort your M&M’s into color groups before eating them.  It isn’t your friend with her dust free home or Bree VanDeKamp hair or Emily Gilmore six-inch tapers.

It does mean that you tend to have thoughts (obsessions) that intrude into your mind and make you extremely uncomfortable, because you know that they are unreasonable.  Some people have thoughts where they hurt themselves or their loved ones.  When I was much younger I once had repeated visions of shoving a corkscrew into my eye while at the bar where I was working.  Understandably it was bothersome, and actually there were times that it worried me to tears, because I knew I wasn’t going to shove a corkscrew into my eye, and I couldn’t figure out why my brain was giving me that picture.  People often engage in repetitive actions (compulsions) to alleviate the stress of these thoughts.  I wiped bar glasses and liquor bottles until they were spotless, and later at home plucked my eyebrows into oblivion because they were never quite symmetrical.  I brushed my teeth until my gums bled…anything to keep my mind off of that fucking corkscrew.  In your mind you know that having washed your hands or brushed your teeth fifteen times before school has probably already taken care of any germs (and skin or enamel), but you can’t get the thoughts of those germs gone.  So you brush, or you wash.  And you still think your hands are covered in bacteria or you can feel your teeth rotting in your head (even though you know it isn’t true).  So you wash again…and you miss that first class…even though you know better.

It overcomes your life.  OCD isn’t just some cute little habit you have of always placing everything on your desk perpendicularly or always lining shoes by the door. It actually interferes with your life and how you are able to live it.

When I was in college I knew that I wasn’t going to blow up my apartment.  My rational mind was well aware of that fact, even though I could see the building on fire and me standing outside of it.  But after cooking, when I had to leave for class, I had to go over to the gas stove and turn all of the dials on to make sure I had turned them off…even if I hadn’t used them.  The oven too.  I just couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the gas on and having something happen to my roommate while she slept.  Then I would grab my bag…and even though I knew I had just. checked. the. damned. knobs.  I had to go back and check them again.  After this I might get out the door and lock it, but then I’d have to go back in and check again.  The next time I might make it all the way down to the main door of the building.  “What if you missed one?  You could blow up the whole building!”.  Back up three flights of stairs, unlock the door, and check the knobs again.  Of course they were fine, just like the last three fucking times I checked.  That didn’t stop me from having to go back two more times, once after thawing my car, and once after I had actually left the parking lot, made an illegal U-turn, and gone back.  I kept seeing the whole building go up like a giant bonfire on a July evening in Michigan.

I was two hours late for class.

I was obsessed with numbers.  If I had pieces of something I couldn’t eat it unless it could be divided into odd-numbered groups of odd numbers.  My weight became an obsession, which isn’t at all uncommon in people with OCD, and no matter how much I lost I was certain that I was disgusting and fat and gross to everyone who saw me.  I actually measured “ins” and “out”, and I will leave you to those pleasant details all on your own.

Years of therapy later I am able to find myself in a place where I can control my OCD, and I have come a long way in managing it.  This isn’t true for everyone, because each of us are unique and what worked for me isn’t going to work for the next person.  I am by no means “cured”, but there is something to be said for being in a stable home environment for the first time in my whole life that has turned the corner for me.  There are things that will cause me to slip…

Some other fun facts about OCD.

There are some lesser known offshoots, such as Trichotillomania and Dermatillomania.  These conditions begin with the same intrusive thoughts, but instead manifest with compulsive hair pulling and skin picking.  I have both of these conditions.  The hair pulling left me with little to no eyebrows, and an embarrassing bald spot on the back of my head that covered nicely with a military style bun.  Without babbling on as I am wont to do, it was another thing I had to work through with a mental health professional (and one awesome esthetician).  The skin picking is still a challenge, and as stress in my life heightens so does that.  This is the most embarrassing of my anxiety issues because this leaves the most obvious marks on my face.  My arms I can hide with long sleeves.  Even though I am incredibly aware of the marking and scarring left, most people don’t notice it, unless they are very close to me, and even then most don’t unless I am comfortable enough around them that they have actually seen me doing said picking.

So, I believe we can see why the usage of OCD is ableist here: it isn’t some funny quirk.  You are trying to be witty.  I get that.  But your witty words mean things about my life, parts of my life that I have worked to overcome, and which people I know are still living with daily and that just isn’t funny.  It isn’t something we close up in a cupboard and laugh about with friends*.  It is a daily struggle for people who absolutely know that they are doing things that are unreasonable to help them cope with the anxiety of things that they also know are unreasonable.  We slog through it, grind it down over years, beat it back, and work our asses off to gain chunks and pieces of our lives back from it.  That is no joke to us.  It is extremely ableist for a person who is in control of their thoughts and actions to appropriate this term to mean that someone is really particular about the way they like things.

So, no, your very tidy friend is not OC.  Unless sie is.  And then, ha ha, sie probably doesn’t appreciate having hir life poked at.

*OK, you got me.  Sometimes we do.  But that is our right, not yours.

Ableist Word Profile: Retarded

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.

Let’s start by looking at various definitions of the word, so we know what we’re talking about. “Retard” can be used as a verb, when it means “to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.” It can also be used as an adjective, when it means “characterized by retardation,” which in turns means “slowness or limitation in intellectual understanding and awareness, emotional development, academic progress, etc.” Finally, it can be used as a noun, when it means “a mentally retarded person.” The word is disparaging and problematic primarily when used as an adjective or noun, so I’m not concerned with people who say things like “embalming mummies was a method of retarding decomposition over time.” Similarly, I’m not concerned with phrases like “fire-retardant pajamas.” I am, though, significantly concerned with people who use the term as a noun or adjective meant to disparage and insult a person, idea, or argument.

Etymologically, the word traces back to Latin roots retardationem, and retardare, meaning “to make slow, delay, keep back, hinder.” It’s the same root as “tardy,” meaning late. This first recorded instance of using the word to mean mentally slow didn’t occur until 1895, and use of the word as a disparaging insult didn’t occur until much later, one source saying the 1960s, another citing a book from the late 1950s where a character discussing Playboy magazine said “that Hefner jazz is for retarded jockstraps.” In either event, it’s a relatively recent development that the word is used to attack and disparage others. Coincidentally (or is it?), it was around the 1950s or 60s that the American medical profession began referring to the psychological condition as ‘mental retardation.’ Before then, the condition had been termed ‘mental deficiency,’ ‘feeble mindedness,’ or simply ‘idiocy.’

In current psychiatric practice, the term “mental retardation” is a medical definition, outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM). (Sorry I can’t link to this – am referring to my own copy. To my knowledge it’s not available in whole online.) The diagnosis requires an IQ score, but that is not the sole factor — it must be accompanied by significant limitations in adaptive functioning in the areas of communication, self-care, home living, social or interpersonal skills, self-direction, functional academic skills, work, leisure, health, and/or safety. Additionally, the onset must be before age 18. The DSM notes that individuals with mental retardation usually present with impairments in adaptive functioning – difficulty coping with the normal demands of life or meeting the standards of personal independence expected of someone in their particular age group and sociocultural background. An individual’s IQ score determines with which of the four subtypes of the disorder an individual will be diagnosed: mild (55-70), moderate (35-50), severe (20-35) and profound (below 20). About 85% of individuals diagnosed with the disorder are in the “mild” category. Importantly, the DSM notes that “no specific personality and behavioral features are uniquely associated with mental retardation.”

This medical definition is certainly not what’s intended in contemporary uses of the word. If I say “I saw Zombieland and it was totally retarded,” I am not saying that I think the movie had a low IQ and I observed significant limitations in adaptive functioning. (That doesn’t even make sense.) I am saying that I thought the movie was bad, uninteresting, boring, nonsensical, repetitive, and a waste of my time and money. But for me to mean any of those things by using the word “retarded,” I and the person to whom I’m speaking have to share the assumption that being retarded is bad and that people who have mental retardation are stupid, uninteresting, and a waste of my time. Similarly, if I say “LAPD Chief Bratton’s views on homeless policy are retarded,” I mean that they are poorly informed, poorly thought out, and will be ineffective. For me to mean that, the person to whom I’m speaking has to share the assumption that people with mental retardation are poorly informed, think poorly, and will be ineffective.

The term is used so broadly in contemporary conversation that usage is no longer based primarily on assumptions about specific behaviors of people who have mental retardation – just the general assumption that retardation is bad, something to be avoided, and things, ideas or people described as retarded should be excluded from the attention of non-retarded people. At this point, the connotation is simply “that’s bad and you should ignore it.” (See the Urban Dictionary entry for the term, which describes it as meaning “bad” in literally hundreds of different ways.) And that is ableist – using a word that not only describes but is the actual medical diagnosis of a mental disability to mean “bad and ignorable.” Using the term reinforces the implicit assumption that mental disabilities are bad and that people with mental disabilities should be excluded and ignored because of their disabilities. And that affects all people with mental disabilities, not just those diagnosed with mental retardation or another developmental disability. (Although it is especially difficult for family members of people with developmental disabilities.)

In the past year or so, I’ve been making an effort to eliminate this word from my vocabulary. And it’s hard. I hadn’t realized how common a word it is until I started paying attention to it, and then I saw it absolutely everywhere, and heard it come out of my own mouth. (I stop myself, apologize, and substitute another word.) There are movies like Tropic Thunder with whole plotlines about “going full retard.” Blogs use it with regularity. I guarantee that now that you’re aware of the word, you’ll notice it in more places than you ever imagined. You might want to consider reading more about or even supporting organizations trying to increase awareness of the word and encourage people and the media to find other words, such as The R Word Campaign and the My Words Matter Pledge.

Some alternative words: bad, awful, silly, poorly reasoned, dunder-headed, illogical, ineffective, inefficient, uninteresting, etc, etc.

By 16 October, 2009.    101, Ableist Word Profile, social attitudes   



Ableist Word Profile: What’s Your Damage?

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.

“What’s your damage,” “what’s your problem,” and the accompanying “what’s your childhood trauma” are, it’s true, not words. They are phrases. But they are ableist phrases, so we are including them in our Ableist Word Profile series. All of these phrases are used when someone’s behaviour appears perplexing, erratic, or unexpected, and they are often used to silence someone by dismissing or belittling them. Fortunately, they are rather outdated and are rarely seen in common language usage, but they are still worth addressing.

These ableist phrases are interesting because they use the disability-as-objectively-bad shorthand to dismiss and marginalize people, using a form of disability which many people would argue is, in fact, harmful, which is a bit of a departure from the norm, in which all disabilities are blanketed with the “bad” status. People should not be traumatized, and the experience of trauma is not a pleasant thing. However, people who have been traumatized are not bad, and using these terms is extremely hurtful to them, whether it is applied to them or applied to someone who has not experienced trauma.

Trauma is a form of invisible disability. There’s no way to tell if someone has experienced trauma unless that person openly talks about it. As a result, when terms like “what’s your childhood trauma” are used in a group setting, there’s no way to know if you are directly hurting someone with your words.

The term “what’s your damage” uses “damage” as a standin for “trauma,” referencing the idea that people who have experienced trauma are damaged, broken, and in need of fixing. “What’s your problem” is another riff on this theme. For people who have experienced trauma and are going through therapy or are coming to terms with the need for therapy, hearing a slang term like this callously tossed out is very hurtful. It marginalizes and belittles the experience of trauma, reducing it to a slang term which is used to silence someone in discussion.

These slang terms can also be very triggering for a survivor of trauma, which is something to keep in mind; once said, it cannot be taken back, and it can cause pain for someone without the speaker being aware of it.

If the speaker knows that someone has experienced trauma and uses one of these slang terms, it is especially hurtful. It implies that a response is not valid because the person is “damaged” or has a “problem” and is therefore not worthy of respect and does not need to be taken seriously. In a literal sense, it is also asking a person with disabilities to explain a disability in personal detail, which is not something which many trauma victims want to do or should do.

“What’s your damage” and similar terms are ableist phrases which most readers should find easy to eliminate because they are so rare. But elimination requires an extra step; eliminating these phrases requires people not to come up with good replacements, but to actually think about the context in which these terms are used. They are usually used as a dismissive silencing tactic, sometimes in response to heated rhetoric.

Introspection about why one feels the need to lash out to silence someone in conversation may help people come to a better word or phrase to use, such as “I understand that this conversation is upsetting, do we need to take a break” or “I respect your point of view, but I disagree” or “I think that this conversation is becoming heated and it’s time to take a step back and regroup.”

By 14 October, 2009.    101, Ableist Word Profile, language  ,  



Ableist Word Profile: Hysterical

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: hysterical. There are a lot of different contemporary definitions of the word (Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, Encarta), but the theme among all of them is emotions that are extreme and unmanageable. A movie described as hysterically funny is likely funnier than most and may cause you to laugh uncontrollably and snort soda out your nose. Someone at a funeral who is crying loudly and who cannot seem to stop crying would likely be described as crying hysterically. But while your mental picture of the movie-goer laughing hysterically could have been either a man or a woman, the person hysterical with grief or worry is much more likely to be a woman than a man. That’s no accident – the history of this term is very gendered.

The word itself is derived from the Latin word hystericus, meaning “of the womb,” and from the Greek word hysterikos, meaning “of the womb, suffering in the womb,” from the Greek word hystera, meaning “womb.” And they understood the uterus to be the direct cause of hysteria. As Hannah S. Decker writes, “Various ancient Greek philosophers and physicians, including Plato, had argued that the uterus is an independent entity within a woman’s body… these thinkers concluded that the uterus had an ardent desire to create children. If the womb remained empty for long after the owner’s puberty, it became unhappy and angry and began to travel through the body. In its wanderings it pressed against various bodily organs, creating “hysterical” — that is, uterus-related — symptoms.”

So when someone on a blog tells me to chill out because it sounds like I’m hysterical about an issue,  the etymological meaning is that my failure to put a baby in my uterus (which has independent will and agency inside my body) has caused it to become angry, loose itself from its mooring, and start floating around inside of my body until it bangs into my brain and starts making me unreasonably upset.

There’s also a strong historical tradition of labeling women as “hysterical” in order to silence, marginalize, or even kill them. During the Roman Catholic inquisitions, thousands of European women were tortured and burnt as witches because they were thought to show signs of hysteria. But it was during the Nineteenth Century that things really got going. Some doctors considered the force of the uterus so powerful that it might overcome the brain and cause a woman to have pathological sexual feelings, “requiring” the physicians to “medically manipulate” the genitals in order to release the woman from control of her uterus. Yes, you read that right, the doctors were obligated to fondle their patients sexually for their own medical good. Conveniently, both mental or emotional distress and any physical symptom could be an indication of a woman’s hysteria, so doctors could diagnose literally any woman as hysterical.

Once hysterical women were no longer burned at the stake, the most common treatment was to send them to bed or to an asylum to prevent any activity or thought that would inflame their hysteria. This was an extremely effective way to marginalize or silence women, as any protest that she was not hysterical would be seen as conclusive proof that the diagnosis of hysteria had been correct. This meant, practically, that any woman categorized as hysterical was forever silenced and lost all credibility.

That’s a whole big mess of etymology and history, so let’s unpack that a bit. When I am told I am hysterical, there is both 1) the implication that I am excessively or unreasonably emotional AND 2) the implication that my condition is unique to my femaleness. It’s also 3) implied that hysterical statements (or even statements from hysterical people) should be discounted and hysterical people need to change in order to participate in the discussion, or should be removed from it entirely. Now let’s look at each one of those individually.

The first is a criticism of and dismissal of my personal emotions based on the observer’s judgment on whether they conform to what “normal” or “reasonable” emotions would be for that situation. The idea of “extremeness” is built into every definition of the word, implying that there is an assumed agreed-upon “normal” range for emotions. In the past, that likely meant “emotions acceptable to white men with money.” Currently, though, the idea is strikingly parallel to current definitions of mental disabilities and mental health diagnoses in the DSM-IV, which require that a specific set of symptoms “must cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning” in order for a person to meet diagnostic criteria. This means that thee idea of emotions that are outside the “normal” range of experience to the degree that they affect a person’s function is the very definition of mental illness. So the accusation of “hysteria,” with the implication that the hysterical person has abnormally extreme emotions, is very clearly an accusation of mental illness. And remember part 3 — the conclusion that a hysterical person (or a person with a mental disability, by equivalency) should be discounted in discussions because of their hysteria/disability. THAT IS ABLEIST.

But that’s not all. The other implication of the term is that this over-emotional condition is a uniquely female condition and is caused directly by female reproductive organs being sad about not having a baby. While that’s not literally how it’s meant today, it still feels like a slightly nicer way of saying “you’re just upset because it’s that time of the month,” another way to marginalize and dismiss females based explicitly on their femaleness. It’s a way to say “that sounds like something a woman would say when she’s being super woman-y and influenced by being a woman.” And again, this is assumed to be a reason to discount the information or perspective offered and to exclude that person from the conversation. THAT IS SEXIST.

And here’s where the intersectionality comes in. Hysterical is a handy dandy insta-dismissal that slams two marginalized groups at the same time – and it only works because to be related to either group is considered to make you lesser. It also means that this word, with its invocation of both ableism and sexism, is particularly sharp when aimed at women with disabilities. That’s why arguments like “It’s sexist because it makes all women sound like crazies! Who’d want to be a crazy!” are extremely problematic – not only does the word rely on both sexism and ableism, it relies on the interaction between those two axes of oppression to be a super strong word.

If we thought of people with mental disabilities as full equals, with valid feelings, thoughts and perspectives that deserved respect, then the message “you are talking like a person with a mental disability because you are a woman” would be a compliment. The message would be “you are presenting a perspective or idea that deserves respectful consideration.”

If we thought of women as full equals, with valid feelings, thoughts, and perspectives that deserved respect, then the message “you are responding with extreme emotion because you are a woman” would imply that the emotion was valid and important and deserved respectful consideration. It would likely mean that whatever idea or perspective presented with that emotion would be given more credit and consideration, not less.

It only works as an insult, as a way to dismiss and marginalize, because both groups are considered lesser. And this is a great example of why intersectionality is so important – the kyriarchy uses other marginalized groups to attack us. As we support each other and all grow stronger, the kyriarchy will be less able to use these groups against us.

Note: I use the word hysterical in some contexts (‘I was hoping Zombieland would be as hysterical as Shaun of the Dead but it totally wasn’t.’) — I think these concerns are primarily relevant when using the word to characterize an individual’s argument, ideas, emotions, or perspective. I’d be interested in learning if others find it problematic in those contexts.

Ableist Word Profile: Lame

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.

Our first two posts in this series seem to have been a smash hit! So, today, I’m picking up with “lame.” When people first start thinking about ableist language, “lame” is one of the first words they eliminate, and it’s a word worth examining. It is usually used in a context which suggests that something is bad, boring, or not worthy of attention. A word often interchanged with “lame” is “gay,” which is, of course, homophobic.

And also not very creative.

“Lame,” derived from a word which literally means “broken,” is an original Old English word. We’re getting to the roots of ableism here, people! At any rate, the word was used historically to refer to people (and animals) with difficulty walking. It’s a bit unclear when people started using the word in the context of events/situations/objects, although it appears to have started around the 18th century.

“Lame” is an ableist word. It’s an ableist word because it assumes that having difficulty walking is objectively bad, and that therefore, a word which is used to describe difficulty walking can be safely used as a pejorative to mean “this is bad.” Using “lame” reinforces ableism in our culture by reminding people that disability is bad, and that it’s so bad that it can be used as a shorthand code to talk about bad things in general. Incidentally, the related “lame-brain”? Also ableist. Just so we’re all clear on that.

One defense of this word which I sometimes encounter is “well, I know someone who is disabled and they use it,” or “I know someone who uses it self referentially.” Both of these things may well be true. I am certainly not going to override your experience. But not everyone views “lame” in a neutral or positive way. Here’s a selection from a comment left at this ain’t livin’ by FB, a regular reader:

Please imagine men AND women staring at you who either: want to insult you because you limp, want to point out that you limp, want to know why you limp, want to point you to an elevator or their personal medical specialist, and, very ocassionaly, want your number because they think you’re attractive. And you know what makes these stares complicated? You never know why they’re staring, except that there is an 80% chance it is about the limp, and absolutely no chance they’ll just leave you alone to mind your own business.

That’s how some people feel when they hear the word “lame.” And when we talk about language usage, it’s worth considering how our use of language impacts others. Not the people we know, the people who assure us that our language is ok, but the people we don’t know. The people whom we are hurting with our careless language use. Eradicating ableist language is not about meeting some politically correct ideal (and when did “politically correct” become a pejorative), it’s about thinking about our actions and considering the ways in which they impact others.

Language has power. We have power when we use language. Language is often used to oppress and abuse. That is what this series is about, an attempt to break the ableist habits of English language users because those habits enforce ableism in English-speaking societies.

So, what are some good alternatives to “lame”?

Try thinking about the situation the word is being applied to. Some suggestions might be: bad, boring, dull, not worth my time, frustrating, irritating.

By 12 October, 2009.    101, Ableist Word Profile, language  , ,  



Ableist Word Profile: Idiot

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.

Following on yesterday’s profile of “cretin,” I thought I’d tackle “idiot” this morning. This is another word which is commonly used to denote low intelligence, and it’s also a word which many people are unaware is ableist in nature. “Idiot” is also closely tied to ideas about intellectual worth, and attitudes that people with intelligence which does not meet an arbitrary standard are somehow lesser human beings.

“Idiot” is a very old word. It’s derived from Latin and Greek roots for “ordinary person,” which came to be used to refer to unskilled labourers, and eventually to people who were ignorant or who lacked education. Interestingly, the word also has roots in lack of civic participation; in Ancient Greece, participation in society and the democratic process was a virtue, and people who did not engage with society were regarded as suspect. This attitude is mirrored in some branches of the modern activist movement; people who don’t engage in the “right kind” of activism are sometimes referred to as “idiots,” for example.

This word appears to have entered the English language around 1300, in reference to people who lacked reasoning skills and were poorly, if at all, educated. In the 1800s, “idiot” acquired a new nuance, as it started to be used as a diagnostic term in reference to people with severe developmental delays. An “idiot” medically speaking was someone with a “mental age level” of less than three years, or an IQ under 30. It was, quite literally, a diagnosis of mental inferiority, as decided by the medical community. I would like to point out, for the record, that people with this diagnosis were subjected to indignities like institutionalization and forcible sterilization, with no less a figure than Oliver Wendell Holmes once saying “three generations of idiots is enough” when defending the forcible sterilization of Carrie Buck in Buck v. Bell in 1927.

And before you leap to say “well, that’s old,” I would like to point out that the word “idiot” was used in a diagnostic and medical context in my home state of California as recently as 2007, when the penal code was finally amended to remove this word from the law books. This illustrates that “idiot” had a dual and widely accepted usage through the 19th and much of the 20th century; laypeople used it to refer to anyone they believed was lacking intelligence, while members of the medical community used it as a diagnostic term.

So, we can see that “idiot” is ableist from several perspectives. It’s yet another word used to denigrate lack of intelligence, and it’s a word with a history as a specific diagnostic term. So, what can we use as an alternative to “idiot”?

Many of the ableist words which reference “inferior intelligence” are actually used in settings when people want to say that someone is being thoughtless, reckless, irresponsible, or rude. So, those are all good words to use as alternatives to “idiot.” One of the things about exploring ableist language is that it forces us to think about the actual meaning of a sentence; when you find yourself wanting to refer to someone as an “idiot” or something as “idiotic,” pause and think about the meaning of what you are trying to say.

“Idiot” is also used in rhetoric to talk about someone who is uninformed about an issue or someone who is unaware of the complexities of a topic. In this sense, a value judgment is being made about someone’s intelligence on the basis of the fact that this person is not familiar with the fine and nuanced details of everything on Earth. It’s worth noting that we all came into this world with no knowledge of anything, and that all of us were uninformed about topics we now consider ourselves knowledgeable about at some point. In this case, rather than using “idiot,” a better word choice might simply be “uninformed.”

By 11 October, 2009.    101, Ableist Word Profile, language  , ,  



Ableist Word Profile: Cretin

Read a Czech translation of this post, prepared by Vera!

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.

The word “cretin” is often used to describe someone of limited intelligence, often with the added connotation of being irritating. “That cretin didn’t change the brake pads properly, and now I have to resurface the rotors!” “That Bobby in accounting is such a mouthbreathing cretin!”

“Cretin” is an ableist word. It’s one which shouldn’t be used by people who consider themselves allies to people with disabilities. Many of the synonyms the dictionary so helpfully provides (idiot, moron, mongoloid, imbecile, fool, half-wit for example), are also ableist.

Let’s talk about the word origins of “cretin” first, shall we? The first recorded use of the word dates to the late 1700s, when it was integrated into English from an Alpine French word, crestin, in the sense of “a dwarfed and deformed idiot.” (Incidentally, who wants to play “spot the ableist language” in that dictionary entry?) The word appears to have its origins in the Vulgate Latin word for “Christian,” which may be, depending on which authority you believe, a reference to the suffering of Christ, the humanity of people with disabilities, or a fetishization of innocence, the idea being that people with disabilities can’t sin, and are therefore Christlike. Other authorities suggest that this etymology is wrong, and that the word may be derived from the same root for “creature.” No matter which etymology you prefer, the roots of this word are clearly rooted in ableist thought.

It’s not really clear which medical condition the Alpine French were describing, but English speakers used it to refer to people with hypothyroidism or iodine deficiencies, two problems which were apparently common in the French Alps. Cretinism, as it came to be known, was associated by members of the public with low intelligence, and as a result, people started using the word to refer to people whom they thought were unintelligent, even when those individuals did not have the medical problems the word was originally coined to describe.

By the 20th century, the medical community was abandoning this word to describe an actual medical condition, since it had acquired such a pejorative connotation, although the word can sometimes be seen in some medical texts. The continued use of “cretin” in English speaks to the ingrained ableism in the language, and also to ideas about intelligence and elitism which are very common in many people. The judgment of intelligence as a value which can be quantified, and the idea that people with lesser degrees of “intelligence” under objective testing are unworthy, are distressingly common. (They’re going to come up again and again in this series, too.)

So, what can you use instead of “cretin”?

Well, the first thing you need to do is examine the word the setting is used in. Let’s take the two examples above.

In the first example, our speaker is bemoaning the actions of a careless mechanic who failed to do a job properly. Surely, in this case, words such as “thoughtless,” “careless,” or perhaps “poorly trained” would be a better fit. “That thoughtless mechanic didn’t change the brake pads properly, and now I have to resurface the rotors!”

In the second example, the context is a bit unclear. Not knowing the speaker, we don’t know if Bob from accounting works slowly, is a bit pedantic when it comes to processing reimbursement claims, or what. It becomes necessary to examine what it is about Bob which so infuriates the speaker. That examination may uncover other words which would be not only more appropriate, but more accurate.

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