What’s in a Word?

What IS in a word? Absolutely nothing and yet apparently everything. This conundrum is what we must look at when we are considering what is an insult, discrimination, and the taking of offence.

Words do not retain the same meaning over time. This changing lexicography contributes to the conundrum. We must be aware of what words mean. But care must come from how our ears hear as well as how our mouths speak.

This capacity of words to change, particularly when words relate to differences between people, does create huge problems. But discrimination itself often is responsible for these very changes. We must be very careful because perceived discrimination can do this as well as spoken discrimination.

As an older person I have witnessed many changes in the language we use when refer to certain members of our population. I can remember as a child reciting “catch a nigger by the toe” knowing full well I was referring to someone racially different. I did not know then it could be a derogatory term and I never used it with that intention. I would not do so now. Yet Jeremy Clarkson was in trouble quite recently for an apparently inadvertent relapse into that old verse when choosing between two cars. It is clear no insult was intended but such was heard.

I worked with children for many years and over that time I have seen a significant number of words which we have used to distinguish children with special needs. As each new and sanitised word is used, it appears, quite quickly, to become imbued with negative connotations. During a few years I worked in England, we in Australia were still officially using the word “retarded” to refer to children who were intellectually a specified number of standard deviations behind the average on a normal curve. Those working in that area in the UK had already moved on to the next piece of nomenclature and I was reprimanded for using “retarded”.

My use of the word had been quite accurate, meaning at that time behind the average intellectually, and did not contain any implication of negativity. I was quite severely reprimanded by my boss for this remark.

At that time, in Australia, it had not been long since “retarded” had been officially substituted for the originally equally benign descriptor “handicapped” which was by then viewed in both counties as a very derogatory term. Some years prior to that, the word “moron” had a legitimately viewed scientific use and definition. There is no situation now when, anywhere, this word would be regarded as appropriate if applied to a person.

Now a phrase “people with a disability”, which purports to separate the person from the perceived problem, is an acceptable nomenclature. But can and should this ever be done? I contend that, instead of trying to do the impossible, we have to learn to fully accept the whole person and include in that acceptance all of our many individual differences including colour, race or disabilities etc. as one complete, worthwhile person. One cannot separate a person from a part which makes up some of their personal humanity.

If we cannot do this it will not be long before we find that the use of “disability” is regarded as an insult and we will change the terminology again. To illustrate this just go back to reconsider terms which are undoubtedly now viewed as derogatory such as “nigger” and “spastic”. Nigger originally was a corruption of older terms for “black”, a plain statement of fact. I don’t believe myself that to name someone as black is to say anything derogative. “Spastic” was used to refer to muscle spasms and often related to a condition now known as “Cerebral Palsy”. It is only legitimately used now to refer to muscle spasms in the colon.

There is nothing bad about being black, brown, yellow or white. Disabilities are an unfortunate fact of life and should not be taken to demean or lessen the person with the disability. Although I have never considered “nigger” or “retarded” or “spastic” as specifically derogative words, I have heard them used that way. When they are used thus there should be outrage. But this outrage should be because of the message the speaker is giving, not at the use of the word itself.

Once we blame the word we deflect ourselves from the real problem.

I can see no intention to insult someone else in the recent use of the two words “nigger ” and “retarded”, as used by Jeremy Clarkson and Shaun Micallif respectively. Therefore it is what the listener feels about the word itself that interprets it as an insult. Some of the greatest insults and most racist or negatively discriminating comments I have heard or read have been made without recourse to any of these ancient terms but in the most pure and benign, even superficially positive, individual words.

The danger is that, if we react to individual words rather than listen carefully to the whole of what is said, we will encourage an artificial sensitivity in our population whilst distorting our ability to recognise real, often politely phrased, insults, discriminations and subtle exclusions. We need to accept all people and be free to discuss and share, using words, our diversity including the advantages, disadvantages and fears that many of us find in these very differences.

Another danger is that we will also inadvertently enlarge the number of words that can be used as insults. I think the very benign and positive, “special needs” may already be heading that way. Is “standard deviation” to be next?


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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