Improve your lexicon: -tard

I’m on a never-ending quest to improve my vocabulary – both by expanding it, and by getting rid of some of the more objectionable, oppressive language which we all use without thinking.

But change can be difficult. The best solution I’ve found is to brainstorm alternative words in advance and think good and hard about them. Hence, these weekly posts – as much a tool for me as for anyone else!

I’m not perfect. Sometimes we can easily see why one word is objectionable, but the alternatives which immediately spring to mind may also have bad connotations which we’re not aware of. I may screw up during this process, but I’ll do my best to fix it when I do. All any of us can do is keep trying and keep learning.

This is another one where I cede the floor to FWD/Forward, who looked specifically at the word “retarded” back in 2009:

This medical definition [of “mental retardation] 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.

Note: “mental retardation” was renamed “intellectual disability” in the DSM-5, updated 2013. But that just goes to show that the argument “oh, but words change over time so it doesn’t mean that any more” is often really inaccurate.

In the charming way NZ English has, -tard has become a suffix in its own right. It still means the same thing, and the whole point is to reference the word “retard”, so it’s part and parcel of the same problem. People with intellectual disabilities shouldn’t be used as shorthand for “bad”.

Alternatives to “retard”, “retarded” and all their variations:

adjective: archaic, pointless, awful, illogical

noun: prat, clown, fool, embarrassment

other: eyeroll, headdesk, no shit

Improve your lexicon: lame

I’m on a never-ending quest to improve my vocabulary – both by expanding it, and by getting rid of some of the more objectionable language which we all use without thinking, but which reflects some pretty terrible attitudes and contributes to stigmatizing groups of people who are already treated pretty badly.

And I’ve noticed a few friends recently turning to Twitter and other places to ask for suggestions to replace words they don’t want to use. Clearly it’s a need!

But change can be difficult – you get so used to using particular words that they pop up mid-sentence and you have less than a second to think of an okay synonym before you have to say it – or fumble your words and look silly. The best solution I’ve found is to brainstorm alternative words in advance and think good and hard about them. Hence, these weekly posts – as much a tool for me as for anyone else!

I’m not perfect. Sometimes we can easily see why one word is objectionable, but the alternatives which immediately spring to mind may also have bad connotations which we’re not aware of. I may screw up during this process, but I’ll do my best to fix it when I do. All any of us can do is keep trying and keep learning.

“Lame” is such a wonderful, catch-all word. It’s one of those “cool” words which people in their 30s and up use ironically in order to mimic the tweens and 20-somethings whose culture and memes dominate pop culture.

It’s also terribly ableist. I can’t put it any better than s.e. smith did waaaaaay back in 2009 on a fantastic blog called FWD/Forward (I’ll probably be linking to more of their word profile posts as this project goes on!)

“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.

It may sound nit-picky to you – and we’ve all heard all the arguments about how ~language changes~ and you don’t need to tell someone with an Honours degree in medieval English about that, okay? – but the way we use words does affect other people. They have the potential to hurt other people. And it’s not a huge deal to me, for myself, to try to avoid that by putting in some effort to change my language.

So what are some alternatives to “lame”? s.e. smith mentions some in her article, but I would add:

pointless, trying too hard, overdone, overused, predictable,
stale, eye-roll-worthy, cringe-inducing, desperate, flimsy,
empty, inadequate, unconvincing, superficial, contemptible

If you’ve got any suggestions of words to cover, pop them in a comment or tweet me!

Watching our language on mental illness and disability

[Content note: ableist language]

It was probably inevitable that in a post on The Standard about the differences in commentary style between leftwing and rightwing blogs, someone would come along and start saying things like:

Kiwiblog’s comments threads feature a great many angry retards, who mistake the laying out of their prejudices for thinking about a subject and presenting an argument on it. This topic attracts them more than most, and the thread was accordingly psychotic in tone.

When I pointed out that using words like “retard” and “psychotic” was unfriendly to people with mental health issues, it was probably also inevitable that I would be called a member of the “volunteer word police”.

The thing is, ableism is a serious issue. And I’m not ashamed to point it out when I see it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the word “ableism”, this is a good introduction.

There are two very good sets of reasons to not use that kind of language.

The first is the harm it causes. The way we talk about people with disabilities or mental illnesses contributes to how society treats them. We can use language which accords people some basic dignity and agency – like “wheelchair user” – or we can use language which pigeonholes them and defines them purely by what they “can’t” do – like “wheelchair-bound”.

And when we talk about judgemental, vindictive, aggressive, callous people like the standard commenters at Kiwiblog as “retards”, we’re saying that people who have severe mental disabilities are judgemental, vindictive, aggressive, and callous. Do you think that’s going to lead to anyone saying “gee, maybe I should be more open-minded and accommodating to people with mental disabilities?”

There’s a lot of highminded progressive principles which liberal/lefty people subscribe to, about treating people equally and not tolerating oppression. And we extend our analysis of power and exploitation to language all the time. We can all see the harm caused by referring to workers as a “resource” or telling sickness beneficiaries that “the best path to recovery is paid work.”

But when it comes to ideas like “don’t use ableist language” or “stop calling Paula Bennett fat” those progressive principles tend to fall down. Suddenly, we refuse to see the harm we cause with our language.

The second reason to avoid ableist language is, sadly, probably more persuasive.

That’s the idea that when we write off threatening, bigoted hate-speech as “retarded” or far-right and religious extremists as “nutjobs”, we’re downplaying the real threat they pose and cut ourselves off from being able to challenge their ideas or the people who propagate them.

Calling Kiwiblog commenters “angry retards” basically lets David Farrar off the hook for providing a platform for bigotry and hate. Talking about Cameron Slater’s mental health all the time mitigates the fact that he has built a following on deliberately destroying people’s careers and trying to threaten their lives. Writing off people like Anders Breivik as “crazy” stops us from examining and understanding the huge community of people who think, say, and may be planning similar violent actions. (And writing off that entire community as “crazy” is a great way to let them organise further acts of terrorist violence right under our noses.)

It’s easy enough to see why this language has a lot of currency. It’s so satisfying to be able to write off whole groups of people as being beneath us, isn’t it? But really it just hurts everyone else, including ourselves.

If that makes me a member of the Volunteer Word Police, I can only hope that the job comes with a shiny badge.

If you’re having difficulty figuring out how to stop using words like “retard” or “lame” in your day-to-day life, here’s a handy guide.