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.