Tag Archives: word use

I Bet It’s Exactly Like That!

[Trigger Warning for descriptions of violent thoughts of self harm]

Oh, by now, faithful readers, you know where we are about to go. We are about to go on a little journey into my mind, the scary place that it is, where I open the floor to discussion about the ways that, once again! Stars and Stripes has managed to get so much so wrong. Because tonight, gentle readers, as I clutch the place that might be close to where my duodendum is and sip my Korean Red Ginsing tea, which the lady at the market told me might help my indigestion, I am reminded once again that I am my mental health are nothing but a metaphor to be co-opted at someone’s convenience!

Let me give you a little background here, because the only online version I can scrape up is this e-version of the print edition, and while WAVE found no accessibility issues with it, I am not going to guarantee that it will be accessible to everyone or accommodating of everyone’s needs. It is, however, a way around their habit of not putting all of their content in their online version (and also allows deployed troops to access the daily paper as well). The front page has the story’s picture, of a white male soldier in Army Green uniform: a light green collared shirt, black tie, green jacket with various awards and pins, a black belt, a black beret, holding a rifle with a bayonet affixed to it. The text on the photo says “Model soldiers [break] Every detail counts when you’re trying to join the storied Old Guard”. The actual article starts on page 4 if you are so inclined to read.

The Old Guard is a ceremonial guard that headquartered out of Fort Meyer, VA, and performs most of its duties in Arlington National Cemetary, similar to the Navy’s Ceremonial Guard, in that they perform many military funerals daily with the cleanest of precision. Their military bearing is expected to be above and beyond that of any other in their branch of service. Their uniforms are expected to be ridiculously perfect, with exquisite attention to the finest aspects of the details, not missing a single loose thread or even a speck of lint. A scuff on your shoe could set you back a week in training. They stand grueling hours at “attention” (The Navy’s Ceremonial Guard does this while holding the business end of the rifle and keeping the butt parallel to the ground for hours, I do not know about the Army’s Old Guard. Full disclosure: I once and briefly dated a guy from the Ceremonial Guard). Everything you know about military bearing is wrong when you arrive for duty, and it is re-taught to “look better”, including the way you turn, march, stand, dress, and press your uniforms (you are even issued special dress white uniforms that are made to withstand the repeated ironing in the Navy Ceremonial Guard).

Do you see what I did there?

I was able to give you some brief background on the very strict regulations of the Old Guard and the Ceremonial Guard without using ableist language. I didn’t once have to compare soldiers or sailors who are required to iron their uniforms exactly right, or who are trained to notice when their medals are one sixteenth of an inch off from the proper dress line to someone who actually obsesses over things like drinking bleach or shoving cork screws in her eyes. Or what it would feel like to jump from a fifth floor balcony.

Because these, my gentle readers, are actual obsessions. They actually intrude on your thoughts and disturb your life, and are really very upsetting, I can assure you. They make you do things, like pull out your hair, burn yourself with a curling iron, wash your hands again and again, and pick at the little imperfections on your skin. Yes sometimes you even iron your uniform again and again and again because you just can’t get it right and double creases are the End of The Universe as We Know It, but it might be because you are certain that if you stop then you are going to iron your hand, not because your Leading Petty Officer is going to chew you out (or your whole division, I mean, does the article expect me to believe that the entire Old Guard has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Because that is not on the application!) but maybe because you recently thought that you might do something very harmful to someone you loved if you stopped holding that iron very tightly. Even if your LPO has put the fear of Cthulhu in you.

Being part of an elite military unit who is honored to be charged with memorializing the fallen and handing flags to their loved ones* or escorting the President or guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a pretty powerful thing, I am sure. The end result of the intense training, of the weeks and weeks of repeated inspections and physical demands, might very well leave some people with OC tendencies or maybe even OCD outright I suppose — I am not a doctor I don’t know and I don’t pretend to know every experience — but it isn’t the same as living with a condition that sometimes (OK, often) inhibits your day to day ability to live, interact, and (here’s the important one) do your job because you are busy carrying out compulsions to get the damned obsessions out of your head.

Yeah, getting worked up over a uniform inspection? I bet it’s exactly like that!

Only, I’ve been there and done that and bought the cheap t-shirt (hell, I’ve been the OC girl who has had to prepare for uniform inspections!).

It isn’t anything like that at all.

*I want to also point out that the article, for those of you who aren’t able/don’t want to read it via the e-reader the requirements for Old Guard: Must be 5’10 or taller, must have combat experience, blah blabbitty blah. Nothing like another exclusionary Old Boys Club for the military, so they can sit around and pat each other on the backs about how Awesome! they all are. I might note, out of some Branch Pride that the Navy Ceremonial Guard frequently wins the Joint Service competitions and they have *gasp* women in their guard.

Oh, and those people receiving flags? Always widows. Always. Way to erase anyone else who might be a surviving loved one of a fallen troop, there S&S, Army, and anyone else involve. UGH!


I’m thinking on metaphors of the body. Here are some examples of what I mean:

On the one hand
Foot in my mouth
Lend a hand
Get back on my feet
Stand up to her
Run with the idea
Wrapped around hir little finger
Get your foot in the door
Dip in a toe
Dangle his feet
Under your thumb

I think these metaphors are interesting evidence as to how much the physical is present in people’s experiences. How much do these phrases assume body parts or functions? What other similar expressions can you think of? What do they mean to you?

I’m thinking on how disability-based metaphors trend to the negative, what Jesse the K would call disabling metaphors. What if we came up with metaphors that centred disabled people’s experiences, of our bodies or otherwise, neutrally or positively? What if disabled people controlled the language, were in charge of determining references to our own experiences? How would that work? What would that even be like?

How are you?

I tend to tense up when I hear that question. What I frequently want to say is, ‘I am not doing well at all. I’m exhausted, I’m stressed, there’s so much drama in my life. My legs hurt and and I really need to sit down. I’m just struggling.’ But that’s not what many people want to hear. In fact, lots of people will stop in their tracks when you give them an answer other than, say, ‘fine thanks’ or ’well and you?’

Sometimes people are asking as they genuinely care how one is. Frequently, however, enquiring after someone is merely a social nicety. And you can’t always tell the difference! That something so nice and positive and supportive has become a formality is pretty sad. And there are added layers of meaning for disabled people.

This question, concerned with health as it is, can be a point of tension for PWD. Because we’re often not fine, and that’s generally not something abled people want to hear about. Not that many people want to know what’s really going on in other people’s lives anyway, all that is deep and dark and personal, but this is particularly true for disability. Disability is held to be unpleasant, not something you want to hear about, and also it’s considered kinder to avoid the subject for fear of distressing the poor disabled person.

I was having a chat about this recently with the lovely Dorian of Dorianisms. He pointed out that ‘how are you’ as polite and meaningless is particularly baffling to his non-neurotypical self. ‘I respect the value of polite, ritualized words. But that one in particular is odd, b/c it takes the same form as an honest inquiry after well-being could. And I don’t know how to tell the difference.’ It’s a matter of having to have learned this social script and then finding out that it doesn’t always mean what one has been told. That’s confusing, and it’s more unnecessary work the neurotypical world requires of non-neurotypical people.

I’m not saying that being asked how one is can’t be a nice experience, or be conducted with nice intent. I can really appreciate my friends asking about what’s going on for me, it’s lovely to be thought of. It’s just that there are so many things going on here.

A couple of years ago, when it got too much, I was in the habit of just talking at people who asked me how I was. I just threw lots of words at them so that they wouldn’t realise I wasn’t answering their question. At present, a favourite response of mine to ‘how are you?’ is ‘because I was born, and I continue to be alive. What kind of a question is that?’ Yes, I know, I have an odd sense of humor. Sometimes when I’m feeling poorly I answer properly, but then I get the looks of disconnection or pity; I’m not sure which is worse. And if I respond with a chirpy ‘fine and you?’ it sounds odd if my health issues come up later in the conversation. I worry that the incongruence might make some think I’m faking, and there are enough people who think that of chronically ill people already! I don’t like to lie, and I really don’t like being expected to lie in order to keep things smooth and social. Alternatively, I frequently wonder if some people aren’t asking me out of concern or even habit, but for gossip fodder. I don’t like my personal experiences to be open to that sort of thing. And sometimes I just don’t want to talk about how I am. I have so much to deal with that I’d rather not think about it while I’m trying to be social, even as ‘how I am’ is making me struggle to be social.

I was in the habit some months ago of not asking PWD ‘how are you’ lest they think I was being intrusive about their health, and now I am thinking of moving back to that. In any case, I am trying to remember to be conscious about how I say it: to mean it when I do, using appropriate phrasing for that particular person, and to refrain where it’s not welcome.

The prevalence of this social custom is simply another nod to abled preferences at the expense of our own. I’ve got a lot more reason to keep my mouth shut about my private medical concerns than an abled person who has just had the flu. If we don’t participate satisfactorily in this seemingly (to abled people!) perfectly innocent and polite cultural norm, it’s another manifestation of our being difficult; we’re bad cripples. All in all, this trifling pleasantry can be pretty loaded. And we’re often expected to share, and only the right about, on abled terms.

Related: Ask Me No Questions and I’ll Tell You No Lies and the comments of Some snappy answers for your stockpile.

[Cross-posted at ZatB]

Dear Imprudence: Oh No, It’s the Pronunciation Police!

The following appeared in Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column chat-room supplement fairly recently:

Chicago: We have a close friend who is prone to embarrassing malapropisms that surpass even the best Norm Crosby bit. These are not innocent and simple mispronunciations—but ugly mangling of words including misuse and lack of understanding of the meaning of some words. I know that many words have multiple pronunciations and meanings, but this is beyond brutal. Some of them are funny, some are faux pas that make you wince and want to help. We used to try to help by repeating the word correctly in conversation after she had mangled it. No success. We have tried the direct approach—like a teacher—but this was rebuffed. We never did any of this in public but in private, away from others. And we picked our spots—only bringing up the worst cases. But she takes offense and continues mispronouncing words and inserting them in conversation where they don’t belong. Recently, my wife used the word adept, and now our friend mispronounces it and uses it like apt. It is like she has her own language. My wife has stopped trying to correct her. Her husband is no help and does the same thing on a smaller scale. I refuse to throw in the towel as I can’t understand why anyone would not want to expand their vocabulary—correctly. I would want to know if I was saying tenor for tenure and FOIL-AGE for any of the many accepted versions of foliage. We are 57 and of sound mind. She does not have a hearing problem.

There are so many problems here, I don’t even know where to begin. This “friend” is SO EMBARRASSING, nor does she take kindly to being corrected by her “well-meaning” pals who think her misuse of language is just terrible! Horrors!

One part that strikes me as uniquely troubling is this: “We are 57 and sound of mind.” Yes, because being 57 is supposed to automatically mean that one becomes not sound-of-mind? Soundness of mind, additionally, is one of those things where the meaning changes depending upon whom you talk to. Combined with the letter-writer’s utterly condescending attitude toward his “friend,” this sounds suspiciously like a trope that has been leveled for ages at PWDs, mostly by the temporarily abled who are so concerned about their welfare: If you’d just take my advice/listen to me/let me HELP you, you would get better. As has been proven time and time again, this is rarely true.

Now let’s look at the columnist’s response:

Emily Yoffe: Your friend probably has some sort of language processing disorder (there was speculation that the George Bush’s malapropisms, “I know you want to put food on your family,” etc., might have come from such a disorder), and all the schoolmarmish corrections in the world won’t “cure” her. It’s good you mention Norm Crosby, because he built an entire career on amusingly mangling language. I don’t know why you consider being with your friend “brutal.” It sounds as if you usually understand what she means, and when you don’t, you can ask for more context. Trying to keep a straight face seems like the biggest problem you face in socializing with her. So just be compassionate and let it go, and when you get in the car, you can laugh at her best neologisms.

Shockingly, I don’t totally hate this advice, despite Yoffe’s ill-fated attempts at snark/humor. She brings up an excellent point: If these “well-meaning” grammar cops think that being around this person (whom they call a friend) is such a trial, then why would they continue to be around this individual? To bolster their own sense of superiority? To show off their class privilege to this “friend” in the most ridiculous way possible? I have some issues with the “just laugh at her when she’s not around” suggestion, which seems almost needlessly rude–laughing at someone’s disability, furthermore, (which they often cannot control) is generally considered impolite for a reason.

But what the hell do I know? I’m just a person with several disabilities; if I’m lucky, perhaps a well-meaning TAB is writing a hand-wringing, oh-so-concerned letter to an advice columnist about me right this very second.

Ableist Word Profile: Moron

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • 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: moron! As in “what a moron, I can’t believe he forgot to change the filters,” or “she’s such a moron,” or “we had the most moronic discussion in class today.” Moron is another in the long list of ableist words which have their roots in the idea that certain types of intellectual ability are more valuable than others, and, as a bonus, it has a history in a diagnostic context as well. Today, people usually use it when they want to insult someone who lacks knowledge or who is behaving in a way which they deem “stupid.”

Again, it’s interesting to note that this word often comes up in contexts in which the person being insulted lacks knowledge. Someone who hasn’t done the reading for class is called a moron. Someone who hasn’t graduated high school is called a moron. Someone who is not as intimately familiar with an issue as other people are is called a moron. It gets to this idea that knowledge=intelligence.

Fun fact: This word entered English in the early 20th century, from the Greek for “foolish” or “dull.” It was almost immediately appropriated as a diagnostic term by, I kid you not, the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded, used to refer to adults with a “mental age” between eight and 12 and an IQ of 51-70. (Hey, did you know that the IQ test is deeply flawed because it was not actually designed to measure “intelligence,” despite the name?) This put them, incidentally, above “idiots” (a “mental age” below six) and “imbeciles” (“mental ages” between six and nine).

By 1922, “moron” was being used as an insult, and it was subsequently dropped from diagnostic use. We use terms like “developmental disability” or “intellectual disability” today to refer to people who formerly would have been diagnosed as “morons.”

Henry H. Goddard, who kindly translated the Binet test into English so that it could be abused to reify intelligence, introduced “moron” into diagnostic use. He also happened to think that people who fell under this classification should be institutionalized, sterilized, and effectively erased from society. (Incidentally, Goddard wasn’t a total jerk, he was also one of the people who pushed for special education in American schools, providing access to education for people who were previously deemed unschoolable.)

Soooo…knowing about the origins of this word, do you still want to  use it to describe human beings? As an insult? I thought not. Every time people use words like “moron,” “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “feebleminded,” they are hearkening back to an alarmingly recent time in which people were diagnostically labeled with these terms, and that labeling was used to justify heinous abuses. That may not be the case anymore, but the legacy lingers, and so do the social attitudes which supported the belief that people with disabilities were not fit for society.

“Moron” is most definitely ableist, not only because of its history in a diagnostic context, but because of the implications it carries about valuing certain brains over others. This, again, is a word which is tricky to eradicate from one’s word usage because of the ways in which it is used. People use “moron” because they want to insult someone’s intelligence. To stop using this word, you first have to rethink the way you think about “intelligence,” and think about what you actually want to say when you use this word.

Ableist Word Profile: Spaz/Spak

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • 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

Spaz/spak, both derived from “spastic,” come with a lot of variations. Someone may be said to be a “spaz” or a “spak,” for example. Someone who is behaving erratically is spazzing or spakking out. “Don’t spazz out,” people say dismissively when someone is reacting to a situation in a way which they think is extreme. There have also been proposals to use “spakking up” or “spakface” to describe what we and many others have been referring to as “crip drag,” in which actors without disabilities portray people with disabilities on stage and screen.

These words pop up in some surprising places; doing some research for this AWP, I even found a model of wheelchair called a “Spazz.”

So, what gives? “Spastic” is a word from the Greek, derived from a root which means “drawing or pulling up,” used to describe people who experience muscle spasms. The word dates from the late 1700s, and began to be used in the 1800s to describe people with spasticity. Spasticity can be associated with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and a number of other conditions. “Spaz” as a slang term popped up in the 1960s.

To the layperson, someone with spasticity might appear clumsy or inept, because of the muscle jerks and clenches which characterize spasticity; folks with spasticity can have difficulty walking, talking, and so forth because their muscles are not entirely under their control. Thus, it’s not too surprising that people started using “spaz” to refer to people who appeared clumsy, because, you know, why just call someone “clumsy1” when you can use an ableist slur instead?

The word is also used to describe erratic or “crazy” behavior, such as “flipping out,” along with some characteristics of neuroatypicality such as awkwardness in social situations, saying things which appear random, not following a conversation, or simply being “geeky” or “dorky” in the eye of the observer. I’ve also heard the word used in reference to epilepsy, most recently on everyone’s favourite television series, Glee.

Both “spaz” and “spak” have clear ableist roots because they’re shortened versions of an actual diagnostic term. They shouldn’t be used to refer to “spasticity” at all (unless, of course, as self identification by someone with spasticity) and they’re definitely not appropriate as slang terms to refer to people without spasticity. The implication here is that spasticity makes someone worthless, inept, awkward, laughable, useless, etc., and “spaz/spak” have become umbrella terms to refer to a wide range of human behaviour.

Because these words are used in so many different ways, it’s hard to come up with a list of recommended alternate uses. I suppose I could try, but I’d go on for hundreds of words. This is another one of those cases in which it’s worth examining what, precisely, is meant by referring to someone as a “spaz” or “spak” or what one is trying to convey when someone is said to be “spakking out” or “spazzing out.”

One of the most interesting objections to this series, for me, has been the idea that it is “taking words away,” paired with a great deal of resentment about being asked to consider language usage. On the contrast, I think that the series adds words to the vocabularies of readers, because it forces people to articulate and clarify what they actually mean. Instead of leaping to a handy ableist slang term for something, people actually need to think about what they want to communicate, and find a word for it. Maybe I’m just a word geek, but I think that’s really fun, personally, exploring new words to use.

Perhaps readers can come up with some suggestions or examples of replacements to “spaz” and “spak” they’ve started using or encouraging others to use below.

  1. Fun unrelated etymology fact: Clumsy is derived from a Middle English word which refers to being numb with cold.

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.

An Expansion On What the Ableist Word Profile Is and Is Not

The Ableist Word Profile has a new introduction:

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • 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

This reflects the fact that there seems to be a bit of confusion about the purpose of this series.

Our goal with the Ableist Word Profile is to explore language, and the way in which language usage can subconsciously reinforce ableism. Indeed, the very structure of the English language reflects social attitudes about disability, and English language users are, therefore, steeped in these attitudes. We hope that all our readers can agree that the reason ableist language is so strong is because it is rooted in ideas about disability, and the value of people with disabilities, and prevailing conceptualization of disability.

While a lot of these posts are intended to get people thinking about word usage, they are not intended to dictate the language that individuals use. Only you can decide what language you use, but you should do so in full awareness of the impact that your language has. Ultimately, the person you need to be accountable to is yourself, not us.

This series is not about telling people that they cannot use language in a reclamatory way, as recently discussed by Lauredhel. At all. It’s also not about telling people which language they should use to define their own experiences. We cannot take that away from anyone, and we don’t want to, because we don’t want to police personal expression. When describing themselves, when choosing words that have meaning for them personally, people can find reclamatory word use incredibly empowering. That’s why we don’t edit comments in which people use language like “lame” self-referentially. Because we don’t view that as ableist.

What we are exploring is how these words are used against people. How words can become weaponized. And how they are used in settings far beyond their original context. We want to spark a discussion about the incredible power that language holds, and how much of this power is exercised on an entirely unconscious level.

I hope that this clears things up a bit; I will be writing more on this topic in the near future.

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.

Ableist Word Profile: Scab

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.

I was working on something the other day and I unconsciously used the word “scab” to refer to temporary non-union workers brought in to break up a strike. And, as soon as I finished typing it, I said “hey, wait a minute!” So I took a break and researched the origins of the word to confirm my suspicions that it was ableist, and made a note to do an ableist word profile on it at some point in the reasonably near future.

Workers’ rights is a big topic of interest to me, as is organized labour and the use of unionization to advocate for the welfare of workers. Thus, I do not look fondly upon strikebreakers. I’ve always heard them called “scabs” and used “scab” myself without really thinking about its origins, but it takes only a cursory glance and thought to realize that the word is ableist; after all, what’s a scab? It’s a crust that forms on a sore or wound. And some people with disabilities have conditions which cause chronic scabbing. In fact, I have a condition which causes chronic scabbing, because I have eczema, so I’ve been using a word which is injurious to me, personally, for years.

“Scab” actually entered English around 1250, in the sense of “skin disease.” Scab as in “crust which forms on a sore” didn’t come into use until almost 200 years later, and “scab” as in “strikebreaker” is from the early 1800s. The word is derived from the Old English for “scratch/itch,” and is closely related to “scabies,” a condition which causes intense itching. And subsequent scratching. And, often, scabbing.

Why did we start referring to strikebreakers as “scabs”? We’ve actually got to take a trip back in time to 1590 to find out, because that’s when the word first started being used to describe a “despicable person,” since apparently people with scabs are despicable. These origins may have some class overtones as well, since people of lower class status are more likely to injure themselves/have untreated wounds and poorly managed skin conditions which result in scabbing. At any rate, the term was borrowed in the late 1700s to refer to people who didn’t join trade unions, and this use explains why we use it to refer to strikebreakers, since some people view strikebreakers as rather despicable.

The ableist origins of this word are clear; we’re using yet another term used to describe a medical condition/symptom as a pejorative. In this case, the medical uses of this word are alive and well. Everyone understands the meaning of scab in relation to health, and many people are also familiar with the pejorative use of the word. As someone who’s actually pretty scabby at the moment, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I never really connected the dots with this word, but now that I have, I’m eliminating it from my word use.

So, what’s an alternative to “scab,” for those who want to be able to say “temporary workers brought in to break up a strike” in a way which conveys sufficient rage and irritation? Well, there’s always “strikebreaker.”

I think it’s also important to note here that while I find the actions of strikebreakers pretty despicable, it’s a complicated issue. Many people hired as strikebreakers are actually unaware of the fact that they are being hired to break a strike, with employers transporting them in such a way that they are not aware they are passing a picket line. Companies have also been known to use people who do not speak the language in a region where a strike is occurring, with the goal of keeping workers ignorant about the circumstances of their employment. Some people may also feel some moral qualms about being involved in unionbusting activity, but they may be forced to accept work as temporary labourers by their financial positions. Things are never as black and white as we want them to be.