Choose your words wisely

    Over the last twenty years or so, public language has increasingly been scrutinized to weed out so-called “offensive” language referring to different ethnic or other marginalized groups. The trend has certainly been going longer than that; witness the 20th century’s path from “negro” to “colored” to “black” to “African-American,” not to mention worse words that were once used freely. In the wake of women’s liberation and the civil rights movement, many groups have spoken out against one term or another.

    In recent years, however, the quest for non-toxic language has gained momentum and spread into more domains. “Crippled” has become “handicapped,” which became “disabled,” which gave way to “differently abled.” “Retarded” has morphed into “developmentally disabled.” Over time, some of these attempts at eliminating bias from language have been taken less seriously than others. Have you ever heard a short person called “vertically challenged,” except as a joke?

    One major problem with the movement to strip everyday language of perceived bias and stigma is the sheer number of words that have negative connotations. To take just one example, in a recent online forum, one contributor objected to the use of the word “lame” as a pejorative. The one who objected is, among other things, an activist against “able-ism,” or prejudice against the disabled. She definitely had a point. It wouldn’t be acceptable to say “boy, that was a Jewish excuse” or “that joke totally had AIDS,” or any number of other terms that reply to specific groups of people.

    Offense is in the eye of the beholder, and we all have different thresholds. For better or worse, I would put “lame” on the acceptable side of the divide for a variety of reasons. First, while “lame” has a long history of use as a synonym of “crippled” (though more generally used to refer to a limb than an individual), this usage has almost entirely disappeared in our time. When did you last hear anyone say “lame” of a physically weak body part? “Lame” also seems more acceptable than many other terms people have objected to, because the literal meaning of the word is relatively close to its slangy use as a pejorative.

    A “lame” arm or leg is one that is weak, possibly injured, and which does not function as we might wish it would. Used as a metaphor and applied to, say, a joke, an excuse or an argument, we are still rather close to the original meaning. Just as a “lame arm” fails to lift as much as one might hope, a “lame joke” fails to make the listener laugh, and a “lame excuse” is ineffectual in convincing the listener. Applying “lame” in this way is much closer to the original meaning than many other words perceived to be discriminatory. A “lame” joke has much more in common with a “lame” leg than a “gay” shirt or a “gay” curfew laid down by a teenager’s parents. “Gay” is not just a word in common usage to refer to often marginalized and victimized people, it is also a word whose derogatory slang meaning has little actual semantic value to back it up.

    And speaking of “gay,” it’s interesting how some slang words related to homosexuality seem to be much more acceptable than others. Calling someone a “faggot,” for example, would generally be quite offensive, unless it was used between gay men on friendly terms. But many people who would never use “gay” as an insult have no problem with saying that anything from a cheap piece of merchandise to an entire political party “sucks.” You might refrain from saying it in front of your grandmother because it’s a bit vulgar, but not because it would be seen as hateful to any particular group of people.

    The various forms of “suck” and “sucker” have become so commonly used that, except when appended to a synonym for “rooster,” it’s easy not to think of its original meaning. This is what linguists might call a “dead metaphor,” or one that no longer evokes its original meaning. It would be highly disingenuous, however, to pretend that the negative connotations of “suck” come from any domain other than oral sex. We don’t say that something “sucks” because we have a deep-seated cultural prejudice against vacuum cleaners, and we don’t call a gullible person a “sucker” because of his resemblance to a lollipop.

    Even if we rationalize this as something other than lingering homophobia – after all, gay men are not the only people who practice fellatio – it still plays into male-centered prejudice against those who are on the “passive” or “receiving” end of sexual acts, whether those are women or men. (Through much of history, acts of sodomy were far less detrimental to the reputation of the participant whose penis was involved. This is certainly the case in popular images of prison life, in which anal sex is an expression of alpha-male power and only the recipient is seriously stigmatized.)

    Perhaps our culture’s increasing tolerance of so-called “obscene” language is related to the expulsion of racist, sexist, and other discriminatory language. Maybe people have a personal or cultural need to speak in “bad” ways, whether to let off steam, for the feelings of bonding that form between people who share “bad” language with impunity, or for the sheer raucous joy of rudeness. This does seem like progress. Of George Carlin’s famous “seven dirty words,” none of them single out ethnic groups. Some arguably have a sexist or homophobic tinge, but even so they seem less inflammatory and divisive than most of the ethnic and other slurs that are now much less acceptable than they used to be.

    The answer is not to create a list of banned words. As we’ve seen with the various words for Americans of African descent, today’s euphemism may be tomorrow’s put-down, and people bent on insulting their fellow men – I mean, um, persons – will always find a way to express their hostility. The best way to not unintentionally insult other people is not to forbid certain words, but to be aware of the implications of what we say. This can be difficult, as so many words are potential stumbling blocks. (Is it racist to say that someone has a “black mark” on their record, or that they are “mired in a dark night of the soul?”)

    It may sound hokey, but we will be well served by the Golden Rule and the Hippocratic Oath: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and try to do no harm.