Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Language: why "retarded" and "lame" are not okay

This is a cross post from Phira. Phira is a recent college graduate with a degree in Biology and Women's Studies. She currently works at a research institute in Boston and intends to eventually earn a medical or public health degree. The feminist issues she feels most strongly about are sexual/intimate violence prevention, health and reproductive health/rights, and living progressively as a constant learning experience. She lives outside of Boston with her adorable parakeet, who tends to get a lot of air-time on Phira's blog,

The language we use every day can be highly problematic. Some words have highly negative and hurtful connotations, and many of those words we are discouraged from using, or perhaps we use them in order to protest. Sometimes, I favor the use of these words. For example, like many of my peers, I feel comfortable in reclaiming the term "queer" as an adjective to describe non-(conservatively described)-traditional sexuality (and "gender queer" for the same with regard to gender). "Queer" is still often used as an insult, in which case it's certainly not appropriate or acceptable. But it's being reclaimed.

However, there are two words that I've recently noticed too many of my friends and peers using. These two words are ones that I've used incredibly frequently in the past. However, though a lot of hard work, I've been eliminating them both from my vocabulary.

It's not easy. I slip up. But it's gotta happen. Otherwise, the door is open for discriminatory language of all times.

These two words are "retarded" and "lame."

The word "retarded," as far as I know, means slowed or delayed. I'm mostly used to seeing it in a musical context (ritard/ando). But when it's used to describe a person who is developmentally delayed or challenged, it takes on an extremely negative meaning, much in the same way that the word "gay" still (unfortunately) can.

Argue all you want that the word "retarded" is medical, or that it's not meant in a bad way. That's all I heard it used as these days. "Oh man, that sucks! That's so retarded!" Or "Ugh, I'm such a retard/'tard." Maybe it would bother me less if people actually DID use it appropriately, instead of as an insult or slur. I've only seen it used as the latter lately.

It never occurred to me that "lame" was offensive until I began frequenting Shakesville. Even then, I think it's the most frequently uttered mistake word in the comments section (I've slipped, and someone today did, too). But once it was explained to me, which took about a second, it made perfect sense. It probably already makes sense if you think about it, even without an explanation.

"Lame" is ableist language. Ableism is one of those weird disciminations, one that no one seems to notice unless 1) they experience it and are perceptive, or 2) they're made aware of it while studying other forms of discriminations, or 3) something else, since categories are flawed. But it's real, as weird as it sounds (weird if, again, you've never thought about it). It's when people are discriminated against because they have some sort of illness or disability or SOMETHING that makes it difficult sometimes/all the time to do things that are expected of what are commonly thought of as "normal people."

There's an intersection and crosswalk near work that's ableist (or the designers are). There isn't enough time to cross the 4 lanes of traffice and two islands during the walk signal. I'm not kidding; I'm able to walk/run just fine, and I have to start crossing before the walk signal and practically run across in order to be halfway across the final lane before the light IN that lane turns green.

Can you imagine what it would be like if I were in a wheelchair? Or on crutches? Or if I had an injury that made it nearly impossible to walk quickly? It would take 2-3 walk signals to get across.

I'm not lame in the sense that my limbs are in fine working order (for now). But I have a chronic illness (in remission right now, yay!). It's been disabling in the past. And that's what the word is referring to: not "normal"-abled people. So when you say something is "lame" when you mean, say, "lousy," you're essentially saying that people who are not "normal"-abled are lousy.

"But Stephanie! I'm just so used to these words! And you know me; I'm a good person who doesn't discriminate against people with mental physical disability. You know I don't mean those words in a bad way against them, right?"

You don't have to use those words anymore; it'll just take a conscious effort to stop. And if you just can't think of words to replace those ones, you're just being lazy and not very creative.

"But what if I mess up?"

I mess up all the time. But that doesn't mean that I give up and I have to keep using this language. It just means I have to try harder. For example, I used "lame" much more frequently than I did "retarded," so it was harder to stop using. So, if I find myself beginning to say it, I just change it to "lousy." It's easy; since they have the same first letter, I've got time to quickly change words (employed very much at Zeldathon, by the way).

Here's the thing: I can't force anyone to stop using these words. But I will ask that you stop using them in conversation with me.

Final notes:
- I put "normal" in quotation marks when talking about disability because normal is subjectively defined. Additionally, someone who is currently "normal" might not be tomorrow. And depending on the activity in question, different people might be able or disabled.
- I don't HATE anyone, by the way, for using these words. You all are my friends. I'm not trying to make you feel guilty; I'm trying to decrease discriminatory language. Don't think I'm angry with anyone.


  1. You hit upon one of my main irritations about ableist language: when you call people out on it, they say they're "used to it," and can't change. Really, "used to" is, as you say, code for "I am lazy and uncreative," and it's extremely annoying that people are too lazy to address problematic language or privilege in general. There are so many excellent words which could be used instead! I always want to hand someone a thesaurus when they call something lame, or gay, or retarded.

  2. "Retarded" is a word I've stopped using, simply because I've had some friends with challenged children who've told me how hurtful the word can be. Perhaps that seems like a given, but I've always thought of the word in a musical context (having been a musician since the age of 3 and holding down a career as a musician.) Yes, it was an insult, but in a different way, and it was hilarious.

    I will also admit that I have had a VERY hard time thinking of a better word to use. Yes, I love language, and I've never met a 15-page college paper I didn't get a an A on, so I'm not stupid. It's just a really striking word, and comedy wouldn't be comedy without some really heavy words.

    But alas, I've removed it from my vocab.

    But, I will not remove "Lame." Nope... won't do it. Well, I'd be a hypocrite if I started now because I wrote two songs with the word "lame" in it, and those are recorded works available to anyone with Itunes - so I'm not going back on that one. Besides that, I think it's a bit of a stretch to find that one offensive, so it's staying. I love Lame. Lamey, Lame, Lame.

  3. but "lousy" is, or was originally, used as classist language, yes? it implied that a person had body lice, i.e. was dirty and socially inferior.

  4. A FBF directed me here, and I'm trying to see it, but I'm not. How is using the word 'lame' discriminatory? I don't mind not using it, I want to understand your position.


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