Sunday Reflections: Five Words We Should All Stop Using
We use a lot of words that we don’t fully consider where they originate from and what they truly imply. Some words are loaded; heavy with meaning and wielding a subtly destructive power that we often fail to fully grasp. Some words harm with their history, the suggested implications, and the way that they reinforce dangerous stereotypes and harmful stigmas. I have been thinking about the power of words a lot lately and here are five words that we should all probably stop staying. These aren’t the only five words, they just happen to be five words that I have heard recently – or I’m sad to say I have said myself. Please note, after much internal debate I have decided to use the words here instead of censoring them to help us fully understand their impact.
At it’s most basic, the definition of this word means less developed then the rest. In its truest form, it can refer to anything. For example, you can refer to the interrupted growth of a tree as being retarded. The problem is that at some point in time in the history of our language we started referring to people as retarded and this is a problem. Now, we casually use this word to refer to something that we think of as stupid as retarded, which is incredibly harmful. People with disabilities have struggled long and hard to be recognized and respected as fully human. The history of how average citizens have treated those with any type of disability is staggeringly shameful. And this word continues that shame. For more information on why we should all stop using this word please visit R-word | Spread the Word to End the Word.
I am a child of the 1980s, which means one of my go to phrases has long been, “that’s so lame.” Like retarded, lame is a pejorative term used to denote something that is stupid, less than or fails to please. Teacher gave a big assignment over Christmas break? Lame.
What does lame really refer to? A person or animal that is unable to walk or unable to walk well because of an injury or illness that affects their foot/feet or legs. A war veteran who loses part of their leg in combat is lame. A child born with a congenital deformity of the feet is lame. And we have just used this word to say that someone or something is stupid, unacceptable, not desirable.
Using the term lame as a derogatory remark others people. If saying something we don’t like or find as less then is lame, the corollary is that people who are in fact quite literally lame must be less than and undesirable.
Retarded and lame are examples of ableist language. Ableism is the discrimination by non-disabled people against disabled people. Ableist language assumes that there is a norm and that anything outside of that norm is undesirable and bad. For example, being able to walk fluently is the norm and anything else – having to use a wheelchair or walker, for example – are bad and undesirable. So our language has evolved to reflect these biases that say there is one right way to be and everything else is less than. The words retarded and lame reflect this bias and when we use them, they hurt people. See, for example, Ableist Word Profile: Lame and Deeply Problematic: Language: why “retarded” and “lame” are not okay.
So you have that friend who changes their mind a lot? Yeah, stop saying they are schizophrenic. Schizophrenia is not the inability to make a decision or someone who changes their mind a lot or has a problem committing. Schizophrenia is a real psychological illness that can be very difficult to live with and requires lifelong care and treatment. People with schizophrenia struggle to find support because there is so much stigma associated with mental illness. For example, even today as we continue to recognize the importance of medical insurance for quality of life, many people still don’t have insurance for mental health issues because our understanding of and stigma against mental health issues is that extreme. Using schizophrenia as a pejorative for your friend with a “quirky” personality helps no one. Worse, it actively harms people. Real people who are struggling to find support and quality care for their very real schizophrenia. See also: It’s Time To Stop Saying Schizophrenic
Crazy and insane as a pejorative falls under the same umbrella as schizophrenia. We throw these words around so casually and they are actively harming people. I talked some about this here: Sunday Reflections: Let’s Talk About How We Talk About Mental Health.
The bottom line is this: people with mental health issues are fighting against so many stigmas to get the medical care and personal support that they need, these terms hurt that fight. They hurt real people. Don’t use them.
I myself am a former slut shamer and I fully admit it. If I saw a girl who was what I considered to be immodestly dressed, the term slut automatically popped into my brain. The problem with this term is that it sexualizes women’s bodies as the default and takes away their sexual agency. It’s a loaded term, someone who makes different clothing and or sexual decisions than me is a slut, the thinking goes. But the problem with this term runs deep because it also feeds into our rape victim blame culture, setting up the idea that a woman can dress or act in a way that makes them somehow complicit in their rape. This is not okay. Slut shaming is deeply rooted in both patriarchal and purity culture. It suggests that a girl in a spaghetti strap tank top is somehow a slut while our men walk around freely without shirts. It suggests that girls are responsible for how men think and act around the female body instead of forcing men to take responsibility for their own thoughts and actions. I talked earlier and perhaps more eloquently about my former slut shaming ways here: True Confessions of a Former Slut Shamer.
Words matter. They have meaning and impact. They have a history. Before we use the words that we use, we should take time to consider where they come from, what they mean, and how they impact the people around us. I’m working on this every day and I hope that you’ll join me.
Filed under: Sunday Reflections
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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