To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Been thinking some more about words. I wrote here about running across the n-word in vintage literature, and how our views of what is or is not acceptable language change.

"Retard" is another word that's losing social acceptance when used as slang to refer to an idea, a thing, or a person as being stupid.

I've seen, though, in more than one place, a person objecting to the use of "lame". Do people really refer to those who, for example, need a cane to walk, as "lame" anymore? I just really don't see that word in use. "Retard" as a stand-in for stupid or incompetent stings because "mentally retarded" is used, along with developmentally disabled, learning disabled, and so forth, to refer to a group of vulnerable people. ("Special Olympics" is even worse, in my view, because it can't mean anything else. At least you can talk about malnutrition retarding growth.)

But "lame"? I wonder if its use is more acceptable to a lot of people because the use of the word to describe people with a walking difficulty is just not something they've ever run across.

There are those who might want to doubt this. But I remember something that happened in Memphis several years ago. A student who worked on the University of Memphis newspaper (it was Memphis State back then) took a picture of some kids playing cards in the Student Union. Behind the students was a window and you could see that it was raining cats and dogs. They ran that picture in the paper with the caption "A Fine Day for Spades". The problem was that the card-playing kids were all black. There were protests, of course, the newspaper was stolen from all the stands where it was distributed, and the photographer's life was made hell for a while.

But she had never heard the word "spade" applied to black people, she tearfully explained. She meant the card game. I'll add here that while it's tempting to try to bring about the age of aquarius or whatever by raising perfectly color-blind and racially naive children, I thought it my duty to point out meanings of words like that to F as we ran across them so this didn't happen to her.

So I think sensitivity is kind of a two-way street. On the one hand, it behooves a person not to use language that he or she knows stands a good probability of causing offense. On the other hand, one might refrain from assuming ill-will on the part of a person using a word one doesn't care for, and I'll even stretch a bit to suggest that one might refrain from lecturing a stranger on how that stranger ought to conduct his or her verbal communications.

2 comments:

Mrs. Who said...

I've done the same with my kids...I was one of those raised in a p/c household before p/c was even thought of...and it did create hardships many times.

class-factotum said...

I didn't know "spade" was a sometimes insult until I was out of college. I thought (and still think!) "calling a spade a spade" is about cards and not confusing spades with clubs.

My overly-PC husband, who was raised by socialist atheists (but fortunately, not everything took), hassles me about "crippled" and "retarded." I don't use "retard," but "retarded" and "crippled" are accurate, specific terms that mean more than "handicapped." His nephew is retarded, but nobody ever uses that word to describe him, as if not saying it keeps it from being real.