NEW BAD WORDS: An Incomplete Compendium of Potentially Offensive Language, Featuring “Lame,” “Retarded,” and Many More

It's like a big mix tape of problematic words! DOESN'T THAT SOUND FUN AND EXCITING?

Dec 13, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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You won't find this level of nitpickyness in any dictionary!

Hey, hands up if you've ever said something that somebody got all "THAT WORD IS OFFENSIVE!" about.

Is every hand up? I can't see you from here.

Language matters. I think we can agree on that. There are some bad words I'm one hundred percent sure on. I don't use them. I don't use the n-word, for example. Actually that is the one word -- the only word -- that I won’t ever say, not even when I’m singing along to A Tribe Called Quest in my car, because the legacy of that word is so terrible and so tragic that I cannot pretend to own even a tiny part of it, not enough to say it out loud. While others may do so, I can’t ever reclaim it -- or even participate in its reclamation -- because it was never used against me. It’s not mine.

White people still get worked up over being told they shouldn’t use the n-word, as though our sense of entitlement to everything extends to every word ever coined, as though we simply can’t stand the injustice of being denied to right to say one thing. Actually, people get annoyed anytime someone raises the problems inherent to the use of certain words in certain contexts. But I like to think, at least, that most of us understand why the n-word is so controversial, and so powerful.

Other more recent bad words I haven't been so immediately sure about: “lame,” “retarded,” “ghetto,” “tranny,” “crazy,” “stupid.” Language is constantly changing, both its meanings and its connotations, and these are, to some extent, words in flux, words many of us grew up familiar with as common terms, but which we are now being encouraged to rethink.

I am easily the worst person ever to do this, because my own linguistic fuckups are multitudinous and legendary. But hey, that's how I learn things! So let's break it all down.

"LAME"

THE BACKGROUND: Historically, “lame” was most often used to describe trouble walking, whether the trouble occurred in people or animals. A horse with an injured leg was lame, as was a man with the same problem. The etymology of the word traces origins in roots that mean "to crush" or "to break," and it was first used in its original meaning sometime around the 12th century.

While it’d be great if “lame” hadn’t eventually come to be used as a negative, it was -- to be lame was to be ineffectual and unuseful, not to mention kind of a drag in general. So when the modern slang usage (meaning uncool, inept, or generally crappy) evolved around the middle of the 20th century, it was likewise riffing on this sense that being lame -- that is, having a disability affecting movement -- is a bad thing to be, an idea that serves to marginalize disabled individuals.

MY OPINION: Personally, I removed “lame” from my own regular use after a few considered conversations with folks who found the word hurtful, and I decided I would rather err on the side of not upsetting people, as ultimately, not using “lame” is but a minor adjustment for me. I still know disabled folks who use the slang term freely, but I figure it’s not my place to tell folks who have had a word used against them how they are allowed to use that word. So I just keep away from it.

"RETARDED"

THE  BACKGROUND: Our own Sarah Fazeli has written about her feelings on “retard,” and made a lot of this argument already. But still, here's the deal: “retarded” as we know it came into use in the early 19th century as a clinical designation for children who were developmentally delayed -- in other words, kids who were developing intellectually less quickly than the average of their peers.

The word comes from the Latin for “to delay,” and around the turn of the 20th century it formally came to be associated with intelligence testing; individuals with an IQ result of less than 70 were said to be “mentally retarded.” (I'm not even going to get into the myriad problems with IQ testing as a concept, but trust me, they exist.)

Ironically, "retarded" was initially used to replace socially negative terms for not-smart people, like “idiot” and “moron,” before ultimately becoming a slur of its own. And while many of us with human souls would bristle at the notion of calling a developmentally delayed child or adult a “retard” as a cruel act, it seems an equal number have no problem using the word as a pejorative when not referencing the people to whom it has historically been applied.  

In today’s slang use, “retarded” generally means dumb (which is itself a word with a problematic background), ridiculous, or socially awkward. In essence, when we call something “retarded,” we’re saying it’s like a developmentally delayed person -- and suggesting these are bad, bad people to be like.

MY OPINION: Truth be told, I didn’t even have to work to stop saying this word. I knew a girl in middle school who endlessly erupted in exclamations of “retard” and “retarded” in every conceivable circumstance, like it was her job, and she sounded like a huge jerk pretty much constantly. Thus at the tender age of twelve I had already decided this was a terribly boring word, so I never really picked it up in the first place. Now I’m glad of it, because I cringe when I hear other folks using it.

"GHETTO"

THE BACKGROUND: "Ghetto" is damn complicated. While in the US today it has a very specific racial connotation, it was originally an Italian word to describe the area, usually outside a city’s walls, where lower social class individuals such as workmen and Jewish people lived. As is true for many of these terms, the word was free of negative connotations for a couple hundred years, until the rise of Hitler and his Final Solution for the eradication of Jewish people, and the Nazi movement to cluster all Jews in specific sections of cities in occupied Europe during World War II.

During the Nazi occupation, Jews were forced into overcrowded ghettos prior to being sent to concentration and death camps, or before simply being executed in the nearest expedient location. Although the Nazis did not often use the word “ghetto” themselves, its long use to denote a Jewish area meant the word became strongly associated with this horrific period in history.

Later, “ghetto” would come to indicate any socially segregated non-white urban neighborhood. In the US in particular it tends to suggest a black neighborhood, and usually a poor one with a high amount of crime. Hence the slang use of “ghetto” to indicate something that is low class, dirty, slapdash or otherwise in poor condition. 

MY OPINION: Do I really have to break down why I think using this word as negative slang is a bad idea? “Ghetto” is both racist and classist at the same time, and its current use as a playful term to call something shitty is also super creepy considering the Nazi extermination connection. 

"TRANNY"

THE BACKGROUND: “Tranny,” usually a diminutive of “transgender” or “transsexual,”  is a relatively new term, and one whose rise to popular use was well lubricated by the porn industry, which used it to describe porn usually containing trans women. Said porn was rarely if ever created by trans individuals themselves, who might be invested in their own representation, but was instead a handy appellation applied by cisgender producers.

From here -- out of porn designed to appeal to a particular mainstream cisgender hetero dude perspective, because even in these more sex-positive times, the bulk of porn is still aimed at straight men -- the term evolved into a slur on a level with “faggot” and “dyke.”

More recently, “tranny” has become a popular term amongst gay men, often used in the spirit of positive reclamation (as many oppressed groups have reclaimed other words traditionally used against them). Of course, the problem here is that gay men are not always trans individuals, and liberally using “tranny” -- a word, to be clear, that has been used to devastating effect against trans folk, and which underscores their social marginalization and position as culture outsiders -- in this way is not always perceived as a friendly act by actual trans folks who have heard it hurled at them in anger and feared for their safety, if not their lives.

MY OPINION: It’s not my identity, therefore it’s not my word to reclaim, and even if my intention was affectionate I would rather not risk thoughtlessly hurting trans folks so I could have unrestricted access to one freaking word. I don't use it.

"CRAZY"

THE BACKGROUND: Up until now, the controversies around most of these examples were probably at least somewhat familiar, but “crazy” might be a new one to you. Originally meaning diseased or sickly, and by the 17th century specifically referring to mental unsoundness, "crazy" is a tricky word because unlike many of the examples above, its use has become so common even to describe non-mentally-ill scenarios that many argue its meaning has sufficiently changed such that it is no longer exclusively a slur.

(But then, we could also say the same thing about “lame.”)

At any rate, the popular use of “crazy” to describe everything from heinous mass murder to mildly irritating politicians is troubling to many people because it associates a very real, very socially stigmatized condition -- mental illness -- as the cause of all the bad things that people do, thereby creating a connection between crazy people and people who do horrible things, while also dehumanizing everyone involved.

It also serves as a dismissive force against people who have legitimate, if difficult to understand, reasons for their actions. For example, during the height of Occupy Wall Street, I often heard those individuals camping outside in the cold to take a political stand referred to as “crazy” -- and some of them may very well have been, but that does not make it acceptable for them to be, for example, utterly brutalized by police. Either way, the crazy that may or may not be there was not the sole reason for their actions. Their actions had a political purpose, one that gets lost, if not intentionally erased, when we put them down to being nothing more than “crazy people.”

MY OPINION: "Crazy" is a word that I struggle with -- with the Jazz Age it developed a new slang use to mean “cool” or “wild” and this is primarily how I use it -- as an upbeat exclamation or an adverb, like "That's crazy awesome, yo!" -- although I’ll admit I have become more aware of my use as I become more aware of how people may be hurt by it and am probably cutting back as a result. I have mostly felt as though using such words in a positive light is less of a problem than using them as insults or slurs, but I’m not sure if those who might have an issue with the word would agree with me.

Also, as a person with a degree of crazy myself, I feel like I get a say in how this one goes. So the jury is still out for me.

"STUPID"

THE BACKGROUND: Stupidity is a massive concept. From its origins in the 15th century to mean “mentally slow,” “stupid” has since evolved to denote a more broadly defined lack of common sense or intelligence, and usually a willful -- rather than accidental -- one. Stupidity is an idea and a word we use and hear constantly, likely every day. 

Indeed, the idea of stupidity is big enough that the subject could fill its own post, but to go to an expert:

In Understanding Stupidity, James F. Welles defines stupidity this way: "The term may be used to designate a mentality which is considered to be informed, deliberate and maladaptive." Welles distinguishes stupidity from ignorance; one must know they are acting in their own worst interest. Secondly, it must be a choice, not a forced act or accident. Lastly, it requires the activity to be maladaptive, in that it is in the worst interest of the actor, and specifically done to prevent adaption to new data or existing circumstances."

Further complicating this particular word is that, unlike many of the terms above, “stupid” does not have a recent legacy of being used to define and dismiss a specific group of people; although, like “retarded,” it has been used to identify developmentally disabled individuals, it has also been used in broader applications to all sorts of actions and misdeeds.

Also, "stupid" has long been a word that some parents forbid their children from using -- even as a kid myself in the 80s, I remember friends' parents who considered saying "stupid" to be on a level with "shit," and a cursory search of parenting blogs today indicates that this practice has not changed -- although it is unlikely that this is owing to anyone considering the word a proper slur, but more because it is simply a rude and cruel thing to say.

Nevertheless, opponents of “stupid” argue that the word’s primary association is with developmentally or intellectually disabled people, and that to use it is to insult people of below-average intelligence.

MY OPINION: I also struggle with "stupid." I find myself using it less and less out of an abundance of caution, but I also think that the point of stupidity being a willful, chosen state sort of kills the idea that it is a slur -- a slur is generally a term whose force comes from its association with a particular undervalued group of people, and "stupid" as defined above can be applied to just about anyone at one point or another.  

The difference between saying, “Wow, I forgot my keys, I am so stupid!” and saying, “Wow, I forgot my keys, I am such a retard!” seems obvious to me -- the latter associates a particular act with a specific person with a disability. The former could hypothetically be read that way, but “stupid” is so ubiquitous it is unlikely the connection is very strong.

Part of it, too, is that I dislike stupidity, at least as it is defined above, as a willful act of deliberate foolishness. I dislike it in myself and in others, even as I try to be forgiving of it in both. I guess that's an issue where I need to look at my own personal growth.

 --

Did I skip a word or term that bothers you most? These are only a few examples. Obviously. Calling people Nazis, the casual racism of "gypped" and "jewed," referring to situations as "schizophrenic" or "bipolar" -- there are an almost inconceivable number of potentially offensive things a person might say. To some extent, this is something we must accept if we plan on dealing with other people for the rest of our lives, as it is unavoidable that we are going to offend people from time to time. That said, we can TRY not to.

Do you have to not use these words? Am I policing your speech? Are special political correctness law enforcement officers going to show up at your door and beat you unconscious and trash your house for failing to comply? Nope, nope, and nope! You have free will. 

Nevertheless, you should still know about these words, and you should know that persisting in ignorance (dare I say stupidity?) with regard to their backgrounds and multiple meanings, and how they might injure or upset people around you, may well lose you some friends, if not a relationship or a job (I know of two different real-life scenarios in which people blew interviews by using "retarded," so this is a real thing).

For my part, I tend to simply trust people when they tell me that a word makes them uncomfortable. For most of these words, not using them anymore is a small effort on my part that might help avoid unwittingly hurting someone I don't want to hurt. And that's usually worthwhile for me. You get to decide whether it's worthwhile for you.