Improve your lexicon: have some balls

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 posts – as much a tool for me as for anyone else!

This was inspired by a friend on Twitter a while back, who asked if it were “too PC” to object to the term “having balls” as a code for being brave.

Well … it probably is “too PC” to the kinds of people who believe thinking about the words you use and the effects they might have on other people is bad.

It’s simple patriarchal masculine-centric thinking. Your balls, nuts, cojones or stones are the source of bravery and courage; these characteristics are associated with being manly or masculine; in contrast, things coded as womanly or feminine are weak and helpless. I’m not down with that for obvious reasons.

On another level, well, not all men have testicles. Even cisgender men. And not everyone with testicles is a guy.

There’s an argument that “having some balls” – like referring to a mixed-gender group of people as “guys” – has come to mean something neutral, divorced from stereotypes about bodies and the gender attached to them to the mainstream. But there are many people who don’t find it so easy to shrug and ignore the obvious implications of gendered, body-based language. There are many people whose identities and gender and bodies are a significant, front-row part of their daily existence. They might have bodies that don’t fit, and the fact that our language makes casual, “neutral” assumptions about things like dudes-have-balls-and-are-brave is a part of what makes their lives way more difficult than mine.

Besides, as with all judgey oppressive language, there are plenty of alternatives, so why not use those instead?

Alternatives to telling people to “have some balls”:

be brave, be bold, show courage, defend yourself,
show some principle, have some guts, back yourself up,
do better, take a stand, stop being gutless

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: fat politicians

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.

ETA: Swear to god, I had this post scheduled before I saw the article which inspired this morning’s post! The Lord moves in mysterious ways.

Anyone who’s known me for any length of time knows how much it irks me when people attack rightwing politicians like Gerry Brownlee or Paula Bennett by going straight for the fat jokes.

I have so many objections to this kind of thing. Fat stigma is a real thing which causes serious harm to people. And politicians like Brownlee and Bennett are so easy to criticise for things which actually are bad, instead of their body size!

The thing is, it’s not just their body size. In our society, which takes a faaaaaairly negative view of fat people, fatness is a code for all kinds of terrible character traits – as Cynara Geissler puts it, “visual shorthand for lazy, undisciplined, incapable and out of control”.

And because many of those traits – laziness, greediness, out of control – align with what we assume about fat people, it becomes far too easy to see, say, Gerry Brownlee’s size as proof of his arrogance, bullishness, pushy-ness, and power-grabbing.

Yet they’re also attributes we might associate with, say, the Prime Minister – except he’s not fat. But fortunately our culture also associates many of those traits with being of Jewish descent, which at best makes it a little cringe-inducing the way many cartoonists whack a great big hooked nose on him in their caricatures.

That’s not a coincidence. After all, only 100 years ago diabetes – which we now associate very firmly with fat people who make “poor lifestyle choices” – was considered “a Jewish disease”.

This examining-our-unconscious-linguistic-biases thing is quite the rollercoaster ride, isn’t it?

And if none of those reasons convince you, I offer this: calling people “fatty” is so primary school, isn’t it? Let’s call people proper grown-up names, if we must.

So, alternatives to “fat” (or whatever other clever word you were going to use which means “fat”) which are perfect for rightwing politicians who oppress the vulnerable:

arrogant, vindictive, bigoted, anti-democratic, bullying,
dogwhistling, boorish, ungallant, uncaring, despotic
oppressive, individualistic, exploitative, sneering, self-serving

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

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!