Ending Words

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

Related Post Roulette

105 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    Right, the cycle of discarding old labels as pejorative or stigmatized, using new ones, and then having to discard those as pejorative or stigmatized, is not a result of difference, but a result of attitudes toward difference. As long as the attitudes persist, the cycle will continue, but it’s possible to break the cycle by changing the attitudes.Report

    • ScarletNumber in reply to Chris says:

      but it’s possible to break the cycle by changing the attitudes.

      Let me know how that works out for you.Report

      • gingergene in reply to ScarletNumber says:

        @scarletnumber The battle is not for the souls of people your age with your attitudes.

        We’ve already changed the social acceptability on many racial slurs, “gay” is rapidly fading as a synonym for “uncool”, and I have seen movement on “retarded” among the people I know (including non-self-selected interactions like with family and co-workers), so I am also optimistic on that this can be achieved.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Chris says:

      @chris I agree, and I am utterly optimistic that views of people with I/DD will change. Therefore, the word changes won’t be endless and meaningless.Report

    • Brooke in reply to Chris says:

      I generally make a reasonable effort not to use hurtful language when talking to people. But lately, it seems like the language policing has gotten out of control. Between identity groups and specific members of those groups dictating which terms I must use to refer to them, and other identity groups telling me which words I must not use, it becomes a minefield quickly.

      An in-law who works in residential care for people with disabilities has told me how much of a chore it is to keep up with the vocabulary merry-go-round. And this is an individual who is caring, compassionate, and very good at his job. It’s a reasonable complaint for normal lay people to make that all the demands of various groups and all the advocacy groups that get offended on their behalf are getting out of hand.Report

      • Chris in reply to Brooke says:

        I wonder if there are any other domains in which a few labels change over the course of years — and we’re talking years, here — and people complain about an inability to keep up.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Brooke says:

        The main example that comes to mind is one where the name applied to some seriously othered people.Report

      • Chris in reply to Brooke says:

        Yeah, I’m sort of lumping that one together with this one. Is there a domain that doesn’t involve a marginalized social group? Like, say, some professional context? I know management terminology changes pretty often, though still over years, for example. I’m sure some people complain. I’m wondering of their complaints might illuminate something about the complaints in this context here, because st the moment I find them absurd.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Brooke says:

        “…specific members of those groups dictating which terms I must use to refer to them, and other identity groups telling me which words I must not use, it becomes a minefield quickly.”


        Actually, I want to call you AAA. Is that cool? I mean, it is SO much easier for me to type. Only one hand… hell, one FINGER is needed… Why should I care what YOU think about YOUR name? Why not just do what is convenient for me?

        I don’t actually mean to pick on you here, Brooke. But your comment exemplified the point I was going to make: some people just don’t like being told what to do. This is exacerbated if the people being told hail from traditionally dominant groups and the people doing the telling hail from traditionally marginalized groups.

        Also, does language policing really happen? I have never witnessed someone who made an honest mistake “policed”. Politely corrected, yes. But never “policed”. The people who get “policed” are the folks who willfully use an offensive term (e.g., Ann Coulter). Yes, yes, I know there was that kerfuffle when that guy said “Niggardly” that one time. But A) that was, what, in the 90s? 80s? and B) stands out because it was an absurd exception.

        Call people what they want to be called. How hard is that?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Brooke says:

        In a professional context?

        You mean like “Laid Off” became “Downsized” became “Right-sized”?Report

      • Chris in reply to Brooke says:

        Yeah, that sort of thing.Report

      • Mo in reply to Brooke says:

        @kazzy I do not think dismissing the effort for someone to change their vocabulary helps convince people at all. This is especially true for words that are not used very often. To use a less heated example, it took me a significant amount of time to refer to the Tennessee Titans as the Titans instead of the Oilers and I still call the Pelicans the Hornets out of force of habit. That adjustment happens faster because during the sports season there is a lot of discussion of the teams and you hear the new term a lot. A lot of times I will still refer to friends who were married years ago by their maiden names, not out of spite or ill will or because I literally used that name for years and possibly decades and you use a friend’s last name so infrequently that there’s not a lot of opportunities to have the new term hardwired.Report

      • Mo in reply to Brooke says:

        @chris “War” to “police action” to “kinetic military action”Report

      • Chris in reply to Brooke says:

        OK, so in those to areas, do people frequently complain that they don’t have enough time to keep up with the changing terminology?Report

      • Mo in reply to Brooke says:

        People complain about dumb corporate speak all the time.Report

      • Chris in reply to Brooke says:

        Oh, I get that people complain that it’s stupid or annoying or useless. People complain about jargon everywhere. What’s happening here with Brooke and Damon (to take two examples) is different, however. They’re saying they can’t be bothered to keep up with changing terminology, because doing so would be too effortful or time-consuming, despite the fact that the terms don’t change very fast (again, over years). I’m wondering if this happens in any other domain, or if it’s just here, where power dynamics are at play.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Brooke says:


        I get that it can take real time and effort to excise something from one’s vocabulary. It took me a while to get ‘gay’ out of there, not because I took issue with removing it, but just because it was (unfortunately) rather ingrained. But I got there. Others can, too. If someone is making a good faith effort, I will offer them all the time and support that seems necessary. But Brooke seemed resistant to even making the effort.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Brooke says:

        I have a hard time keeping up too. Like, when did we start calling people whose favorite things are layoffs and outsourcing “job creators”?Report

    • Mo in reply to Chris says:

      @chris This is known as the “Euphemism Treadmill”. In the last post, there was an example of this regarding the use of the word “Special” to describe Fox, when it was pretty unclear that it was being used as a euphemism for stupid. There is a long history of clinical terms for I/DD going back over a hundred years that eventually became offensive after entering the vernacular. For example, “imbecile”, “idiot” and “moron”.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mo says:


        But that speaks to Rose’s point about acceptance. Why are we so willing to use terms that describe folks with I/DD as insults? Hell, why are we so eager to insult in the first place?Report

      • Mo in reply to Mo says:

        @kazzy I agree. My point is that changing the term doesn’t do much to change the norms, it just leads to another go around.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mo says:


        There was an interesting series of posters floating around the education world about a year back. They were challenging the use of “gay” and “retarded” and offered a long list of alternatives: stupid, lame, etc. The gist of the posters was a good one. But then I wondered… how about we just don’t call people names? Like, telling people to call someone lame instead of gay doesn’t REALLY address the issue. I mean, high schoolers are gonna high school… but still.Report

      • Mo in reply to Mo says:


        I find it ironic that this is an acceptable insult in the context of that poster.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Mo says:

        “Lame” is a pretty weak insult. But the whole subject is ugly.Report

  2. Damon says:

    “Words are social. They are not assigned a personal meaning by each individual who uses them, or else linguistic communication would be impossible.”

    Yes, they are social, but people modify word meanings all the time, either to “harm” or “empower”. Example: faggot, gay, “the N word”, etc. I’ve been told “dude, that’s so gay” in relation to an action I took, and it wasn’t because of any homosexual connotations, it was because the kid was using it as a synonym for “uncool”. If enough people begin using that word to mean “uncool”, they language changes.

    I’m not saying that people shouldn’t have a certain deference to the opinions of those effected by these types of word, but where / when are we going to draw the line? Frankly, “keeping up with the latest approved vocabulary” is a bit tedious and I do have more important things to do.Report

    • Kim in reply to Damon says:

      I would rather call people by the names they fought for (I feel it gives them dignity, and reminds us of how long a road we have trod to get here), but I suspect that gets MORE confusing, not less.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Damon says:

      Really, it doesn’t take that much time to keep up with the vocabulary, and I think there aren’t many more important things to do than not to hurt people deeply. You read the post on this word – no further time or research is needed on your part not to use the word.

      Of course word meaning changes with use. “Nice” used to mean “fastidious.” I used to say, “that’s so gay,” or “that’s so retarded.” I didn’t literally have an image of gay people or people with disabilities in my head when I said that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not hurtful to someone. So I don’t say it anymore.Report

      • Damon in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Really? @rose-woodhouse
        I’m unaware of the current “approved” replacement for “retard”. “Mentally challenged”? “Differently able”? Or something else? Or are those terms verboten now too? I’m being serious. What are the proper terms? I don’t run in those circles and generally have zero interaction with those requiring special needs. It’s not like the new nomenclature comes up on NPR every month.

        And just how am I supposed to know that the phrase some kid uses is considered offensive by the group referenced? I thought “slut” was offensive, but now I read about slutwalks and folks using the term for empowerment. Is “slut” only acceptable if it’s in regard to empowering women and not otherwise? Reference my comment about the N word here:


        Where I asked:
        “Ok, so let me get the lay of the land now…
        It’s always ok for blacks to use the N word on folks that are black, either as a slight, or as a compliment.
        It’s never ok for white guys to use the N word toward blacks.
        It’s sometimes ok for a black guy to call a white guy the N word, but the context matters.”
        And Scarletnumber had this toothy response:
        “Don’t bother, as soon as you get the lay of the land, it will change.”

        So, what’s your advice, especially considering that there’s some consensus on the definitions as movable targets?

        Now, about this: “I think there aren’t many more important things to do than not to hurt people deeply.” I’ll tell you what’s more important: Getting to work & doing my job so I can get paid–so I can pay my bills and put food on the table. Everything else is secondary.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Here’s how I see it. I don’t see a problem with people using a word they genuinely don’t realize is offensive. Or for failing to research the most up-to-date language usage. If, however, they have learned in some way that it is offensive and just decide to keep using it because they can’t be bothered – that’s another story.

        So: acceptable phrase (depending on disability) is intellectually disabled, developmentally disabled, or intellectually and developmentally disabled. Not what I would have chosen, but there you have it. Abbreviates to I/DD (or ID or DD). Someone like my son, who has physical as well as cognitive disabilities, is generally said to have multiple disabilities.

        NOT differently abled.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        And I say this as a currently-mostly-single parent (my husband is living out of town for a year) who has two jobs and three very young kids and not a lot of money, and who cares a lot about how I spend my time and how I can get more money: I promise you that the time it takes to change your vocabulary to something less hurtful does not inhibit your earning potential.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Damon says:

      I’m relatively sure that most gay people would take great offense if the word gay was used to signify something is uncool. I also don’t think that using names of particular groups as an insult is really that hard a rule to follow.Report

  3. Burt Likko says:

    To “retard” somethng is to restrain it, to hold it back. My car might be retarded because my enemy tied its rear axle to a lamppost with a cable. So the notion of a “retarded” person was that their intellectual development was somehow held back or restrained by way of a disability. I don’t claim deep familiarity with the physiological and developmental issues, but I know this much: that’s not an accurate description of all people with intellectual disabilities based on current science. Some people really have difficulties and will not progress intellectually beyond a certain point, others may develop more slowly, others still are quite intelligent and mentally capable if not downright canny. So you might want to add inaccuracy to your already-persuasie list of reasons why this word should be disfavored, at least in this context.

    And I don’t think it helps all that much to try and fall back on the classical definition of the term: while dictionaries will tell you that it’s gramattically acceptable to complain about a “niggardly” portion of food served to you at a restaurant, social convention is pretty powerful that you ought to select a different adjective. Langauge evolves, particularly with regard to usage. While in the 1960’s no one might have given a second thought to the appropriateness of calling a football team the “Redskins” that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to do so today.

    With that said, is it also possible to simultaneously condemn the use of words that have become offensive and regret the clunkiness of neologisms, particularly in this arena? We can agree that it’s no longer acceptable to describe someone with the “r-word,” but someone else who hasn’t quite caught up with this effort to change convention and uses the word gets called an “ableist” and “ableist” is, at best, cludgy.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I find “intellectually and developmentally disabled” incredibly clunky. I wish another term had been chosen. “I/DD” is pretty quick and snappy, though.Report

      • Murali in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:


        It seems to me that any given term which literally refers to a certain specific disability (qua disability) can be used to insult someone without that disability by being employed as a metaphor or part of an extended metaphor. Any such use will be insulting to possessors of that disability. The key problem is that the term refers to a disability. Disability implies function that is at least normally impaired or which otherwise requires additional social support in order to restore normal functioning.

        For instance, the wheelchair bound require ramps to move around. They can only leave sidewalks at specific points. They take up more space on buses and trains etc. The argument against the concept of disability typically runs that it is the way in which we structure our environment that impairs function in people with particular characteristics. The impairment of function is not intrinsic to those characteristics. But this is mistaken (or at least the objection is mis-aimed). Ramps typically take up more space than stairs. Ramps are thus more expensive than stairs. Moreover, since ramps need railings to be safe, they take more time to traverse than stairs. If no-one were wheel chair bound or on crutches or walkers, there would be very few reasons to have a ramp. This means that that ramps are more expensive. As a result, a certain fact is undeniable. The building of ramps is a form of assistance provided by the building owner (usually not disabled) to the wheelchair bound. Being wheel-chair bound thus impairs one particular kind of function (mobility). We wouldn’t build ramps except to help out and accommodate the mobility impaired. Such help is something they need in order to be on par (vis a vis mobility) with those whose legs work normally. The wheel-chair bound are thus dis-abled not differently-abled.

        But, if John has less mobility than others, John is lesser than others with respect to mobility. Suppose there was some things for example humour or arguments for which mobility can be used as a metaphor. Then expressing criticism in that metaphor necessarily involves mentioning impairment of that capacity. For instance, someone would say that a particular argument is lame. And someone else could say that it is not even lame, it is paraplegic.

        The root problem then is not a particular word which happens to literally describe a disability, but using words which describe disabilities in a metaphorical way to criticise others. Any use of such words is going to have a negative connotation. Compare two situations:

        Situation 1: John does something stupid and Peter replies, “John are you mentally retarded?”
        Situation 2: John does the same stupid thing and Peter replies, “John, are you I/DD?”

        Both would be equally insulting to a developmentally disabled person. The reason why we might expect asking people to stop using the word retarded to work is that calling a person I/DD does not roll off he tongue as nicely as calling a person retarded. So, it is at least harder (for now) for a new metaphorical usage to develop. But what really happens is that people stop using intellectual disability as a metaphor for people who do stupid or irrational things.

        But now it seems less clear to me that it is reasonable to ask this of people with respect to disabilities. Since a person who possesses a disability is in fact lesser on that dimension even though not necessarily lesser qua personhood, such comparisons and their inevitable implication seem to have a factive basis (at least some times if not exactly in every use of the term) Another reason is that it requires people to give up an expressive and extremely convenient class of metaphors. Perhaps it is reasonable to ask people that they do so, but it seems less obvious to me.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        @murali I don’t have time to answer all your questions. A few quick notes:

        1)I addressed some of this in my thoughts on childhood and familiarity. Why I think the difference is not so great and why they need not see that as pejorative.
        2) Disability often comes with cmpensatory gains. There has never been a single recorded case of a congenitally blind person with schizophrenia. Two possible reasons for this are enhanced hearing and enhanced executive function that they have to the rest of us.
        3) Able-bodied people often end up benefiting from accommodations. You ask someone who uses a stroller if they are not grateful for ramps and curb cuts.
        4) Disabilities are not absolute. Someone who is paraplegic is not wheelchair “bound,” he is self-sufficient compared to someone with no access to a wheelchair. A person in a wheelchair in a place with ramps, etc., can be just as functional as someone who walks. Sometimes more functional. It is wheelchair marathoners who actually win the race. Oscar Pistorius can outrun me and you any day. With distributive justice accommodations, the functional loss of disabilities are highly mitigated – and sometimes they even surpass typical folks. Witness the outcry over whether Pistorius’s blades gave him an unfair advantage.
        5) Many, many things besides disability can impact functionality: poverty, racism, stress. Are they all to be pejorative terms?
        6) Re: your example of subsituting I/DD for “retarded.” If you said, “That b*tch is a c*ck-teasing slut,” or “that woman is a c*ck-teasing slut,” I would be equally offended. That does NOT mean it is okay to call women b*tches!!!!Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        @murali 7) In case you might be tempted to think that distributive justice accommodations that provide equal opportunity do not help people with I/DD, you are grossly mistaken. There are far greater differences in functional outcome due to educational choices made for people with I/DD than for typical folks. That is, people with I/DD stand to benefit to a much greater degree from investment in education. Also, technology can indeed be a boon. I know someone with very severe I/DD who had a spoken vocabulary of 600 words, which she usually used in single-word sentences, e.g. “want” or “water.” She was given an iPad that had an app that allowed her to touch picture symbols instead of speaking words, and the iPad would articulate the sounds. Within a year, she made 5-word sentences and her vocabulary was in the thousands.
        8) I wrote an article about why businesses hiring people with I/DD is not just charitable, but it turns out makes good business sense. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/27/hiring-people-with-disabilities-isn-t-just-the-right-thing-to-do-it-s-good-for-business.htmlReport

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        @murali Finally – I am purposely using Rawlsian terms, because while he famously hand-waved away disability, so much of what he said genuinely applies. If you want to read what is sort of the founding philosophical document of recent disability rights philosophy, I STRONGLY encourage you to read this: http://www.uhh.hawaii.edu/~ronald/pubs/2000-Against-Normal-Function.pdfReport

  4. ScarletNumber says:

    The late Patrice O’Neal said he didn’t like the phrase “n word” because white people felt very comfortable saying it, as opposed to the actual n-word, which most white people don’t. But they still got their point across.

    The same could be said for the phrase “r word”. I used it myself in front of a group of people when a piece of technology wasn’t working properly. Social pressure kept me from using the actual r-word, but saying the phrase “r word” allowed me to get my point across and be culturally sensitive at the same time. Win-win.Report

    • gingergene in reply to ScarletNumber says:

      I think you managed to get and miss the point simultaneously. Obviously I can’t speak for the people in the room at the time, but if you said to me that something or someone was acting like an “r-word”, I would have nearly the same reaction as if you said “retarded”. The only difference is that I would wonder if you had swung and missed for decency or if you knew better but couldn’t be bothered to think of a different way to make your point. I also imagine that I would know the answer to that unless I was a total stranger to you.

      IOW, I think there’s a strong possibility that you really lost-lost.Report

      • ScarletNumber in reply to gingergene says:

        That’s why I hang around with people don’t so easily get their panties in a bunch when I can help it.Report

      • gingergene in reply to gingergene says:

        If these people were so completely without the inclination to take offense as you describe, they would know that you didn’t really mean anything bad by saying “retarded”, so there was no need to resort to “the r word”. Again, even taking your story at face value, it’s obvious that no one- including you- believes what you’re saying.

        Which is good! Progress is happening!Report

      • ScarletNumber in reply to gingergene says:

        Again, even taking your story at face value, it’s obvious that no one- including you- believes what you’re saying.

        I don’t understand this sentence.Report

  5. zic says:

    Rose, I’d like to flip this around. I completely understand that ‘retarded’ is offensive to developmentally disabled people. So are similar words like ‘dumb.’

    But there is also some need to refer to outright stupid and idiotic stuff people do. What would you suggest?Report

  6. aaron david says:

    Not so much with the R——- word, but many other words that are considered offensive often become ingroup/outgroup signifiers. Words such as fag, faggot, the n word, etc. sometimes get used by the ingroup, but the outgroup, seeing that they are still in use will start to pick them up and use them.

    Here is an example from Querty magazine:
    I would look at the comments to get the clear picture of what I am trying to say.

    It makes it quite hard to get people to realize that it offensive when you still use the words.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to aaron david says:

      A couple of the parents I know do it with the R-word, but it’s done privately and meant with a certain irony. There’s certainly no movement to reclaim the word, and I have never heard a self-advocate use it. People with disabilities more generally have done so with “crip.”

      This is off your topic, but many of the people with I/DD that I know (and parents/caregivers) haaaaaate “differently abled,” for the same reasons that many typical people find it annoying.Report

      • aaron david in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Different abled sounds rather patronizing…

        That said, crip was a word that my brothers age group used derogatively. It didn’t work its way down to my friends and I, but we had our own versions.Report

    • Actually, the R word seems to have lost much of its stigma lately, though I think that’s a purely temporary effect, and I expect it to be a vulgar insult again before long.

      We are talking about “Republican”, right?Report

  7. A Compromised Immune System says:

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again.

    ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

    ‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’

    ‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

    ‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

    ‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    (Note: I was raised in a very, very pro-life community of people.)

    In the 70’s, there were quite regularly I/DD people around. Trisomy-21 was… well, while it wasn’t *COMMON*, it wasn’t a surprise to hear about a family that had a child with Trisomy-21 and that we were going over there and we were going to play with them AND YES WE WERE GOING TO PLAY WITH ALL OF THEM OR WE WOULD GET THE BELT WHEN WE GOT HOME. As we did not want the belt, we played with all of the kids when we got over there.

    There were kids with Trisomy-21 in the youth group at the church and you’d see them playing at the park, walking with their parents at the mall, it wasn’t completely uncommon.

    A local restaurant had adopted, if you will, a person with Trisomy-21 as a busboy and he did his job diligently for years and years (more than a decade). The workers there spend different evenings of the week with him. This one would watch Thursday Night Football, that one would get him on Saturday nights and they’d watch other shows. (Sadly, he passed due to an unexpected heart issue recently. He was about my age. Early 40’s.) This guy was the only person with Trisomy-21 that I encountered in my day to day life for years and years. Certainly more than a decade.

    I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a child with Trisomy-21 at, say, the mall or walking through the park.

    Integrating them is probably a good idea… but my anecdotal/observational evidence is that cultural attitudes have changed a great deal since the 70’s. I’d guess that there’s a feedback loop between the normalization of abortion and fewer people with, for example, Trisomy-21 to integrate into society to allow others to figure out that they’re not scary.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Jaybird says:

      Fewer people with Trisomy-21 (although I do see them out and about), but many many more people than ever with autism.Report

      • North in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        If they ever develope an in utero test for it (which is nowhere on the horizon since the autism spectrum remains a bafflingly complex beastie) one could expect that to change*.

        *In fairness the same likely holds true for homosexuality, a fact that I always type with fear and trembling.Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      Yes, Downs syndrome too and a lot of other disordered that can be detected in utero. Pro-Choicers don’t exactly celebrate them but their rubrics of “your body/your choice” mostly insulates them from that particular unpleasant reality. Pro-Lifer’s are aware of it as well, you see some of them occasionally very gingerly gesture at it. It was quite in vogue during Sarah Palin’s run with John McCain. Generally referred to admiringly as walking the walk etc… but mostly swept under the rug.

      This is because, despite their principles, pro-lifers know that if they publicly asserted that they believe that anyone who tested positive for these kinds of things should be forced to carry the child to term and raise him/her then they would be relegated to having about the same political clout as the American Christian Theocracy advocates.

      Much easier to scream about easy women or abortion as birth control and inch ever closer to achieving come of their political aims.Report

  9. Pinky says:

    I wouldn’t use the term “retarded”. I’d have no problem using the term “mentally retarded”, though. It sounds more clinical, and I remember it being used without prejudice. “Retarded” sounds too much like “retard”, which was always during my lifetime a term of derision.Report

  10. Lyle says:

    Of course the words change with generations. Looking in my 1960 encyclopedia Britannica it has moron, idiot and imbecile (which were based upon IQ scores). It should be noted that a lot of the text dated back to the 1920s in that edition.Report

  11. Pyre says:

    I debated on whether to say anything here but poor judgement is going to win out.

    I think, by using a deliberately provocational term such as “mansplaining”, you undermine your own argument.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Pyre says:

      I hear you. I think the term is useful in that it denotes a certain sort of behavior that had gone largely unrecognized, but it has been overused. But, in its original usage, I do think that was what happened.Report

      • Pyre in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Perhaps it is a useful way to denote a certain behavior. But, ignoring the inherent laziness and misuse of the word as an argumentative tactic, it is a word that falls under all the conditions that you list below. It can be reasonably construed as insulting to a significant number of people with a shared property which does not involve remembering anything intricate about the individual preferences of that group.

        Much as you might find the word “mansplaining” a convenient word to label what you see as a common behavior of a group that you do not belong to, others might find the “r-word” convenient to simplify what they perceive as a trait among a group that they do not belong to or to get a cheap laugh on their show. That does not erase the negative tone of the word both in it’s original definition as well as it’s current usage.Report

  12. Notme says:

    Sadly this thread reminds me of the recent upset by Hillary supporters with the media. Apparently they’ve given reporters a list of words that shouldn’t be used to describe her because they are sexist when applied to her and presumably only when used about her.


    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Notme says:

      No one is asking you not to use specific words with specific people. And I frankly don’t see why it’s sad to ask people not to use a vanishingly tiny proportion of their vocabulary, when perfectly acceptable substitutes exist, when those words really upset people. In terms of weighing harms and benefits, it’s just straightforward. You don’t use the words. The benefit you get from using those words cannot possibly outweigh the harm they do to other people. Whether you think they *should* be harmed by those words is not something you’re in much of a position to say – given, again, that the overwhelming majority of people to whom the word is applied report it to be harmful. That is stronger evidence than anyone gives along the lines of, “Well, I wouldn’t be offended if it were me.”Report

      • Notme in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:


        Prehaps you can tell us how words like “secretive” and “calculating” or other listed words are sexist? To me it sounds like another liberal attempt to prevent genuine discussion about and description of Hillary. I am hoping for something more than those words will hurt Hillary’s feelings.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I specifically said that I’m not arguing about any one person’s list of offensive words. I’m talking about what a majority of a large group says about the collective term used to refer to them.Report

      • Notme in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:


        I understand now, this is your non answer answer. Clearly you either dont have an opinion or dont wish to share it. That is what we in the trade call a Glomar response.

        But in in gereral you dont think theses terms should be used if they upset the person?Report

      • Pinky in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I don’t understand the value of the distinction you’re making. “No one is asking you not to use specific words with specific people.” But if the number of words is vanishingly small, why shouldn’t they ask you not to use specific words with specific people? If the presence of substitute words is enough to make you consider erasing a word, why shouldn’t they ask you not to use specific words with specific people?

        Use or disuse of words is something that can’t be decided by rules, because communication is more subtle than that. It requires a rule of thumb: courtesy. It’s discourteous to use terms that can reasonably be seen as insulting. It’s discourteous to insist that others change their vocabulary on the basis of your feelings. It’s a tough balance to find, as most things involving courtesy are.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Mike, I don’t think Rose is talking about that at all. I don’t see how you could’ve gotten that.Report

      • Yeah, I I may have misread what Rose meant by “specific”.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        One thing that strikes me as strange about the debate about appropriate words in this context is that … well, let’s take a specific example. The “r” word.

        One of the goals of the word-change game is to find a better word for referring to developmentally or intellectually challenged or disabled folks than the word “retarded”. FOlks in that community find the word offensive, and most of us agree that it is, so all us members of polite society actually change our language a bit to accommodate this (pretty reasonable) request and we now refer to them as developmentally disabled (or etc.).

        But let’s assume – for the sake of argument here! – that no one calls these folks “retarded” anymore. Are uses of the word “retarded” in a different context no longer appropriate? Apparently so. The word simply needs to be eradicated from our language. But by hypothesis, it isn’t used to refer to actually devemopmentally disabled folks anymore. It’s used to refer to an intellectually able person’s otherwise really stupid behavior or thought process.

        Is that reasonable? Why does that strike as possibly asking too much of people, especially given the main argument? Or am I not understanding that argument?Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        @mike-schilling Not what I was talking about, but interestingly relevant.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I (for one) don’t see why it must be banned in all instances. I still say, for example, that my son’s syndrome is associated with growth retardation — although he didn’t get the memo and is heading for, like, 7 feet tall.Report

      • @stillwater , would you really describe an underpoured cocktail as containing a “niggardly” portion of alcohol? Would you do that if the bartender were black?

        That’s a word that’s become so tainted with such obloquy that yeah, it may very well be better deleting it from the vocabulary altogether.

        Need the word “retarded” suffer that fate? Not necessarily, but since people do have a propensity to insult one another, since ingrained attitudes are difficult to change, since there are those who will seemingly insist that conduct that was once considered socially acceptable will always remain so rather than reform their own attitudes, in this case it looks like we’re headed in the direction of excising that word from the vernacular.

        The question is then whether we will think we really lost something or if we shall say “good riddance.” If this word is like the racial epithet I referred to above, I’m going to say the latter.Report

      • “Niggardly” is one I don’t understand. Yes, I know what it sounds like, but it can’t be mistaken for a slur: there’s no stereotype of black people being stingy.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        The social pressures which would prevent me from using the word “niggardly” when ordering a cocktail at a bar have nothing to do with the racial connotations of that word. Just sayin.

        Here’s another angle which is probably the motivation of my earlier comment. I think the thing I’m pushing against is the dynamic in which a person is viewed as being insufficiently sensitive to the feelings of the developmentally disabled community even after considered reflection by the person engaging in the “offensive” language. The assumption seems to be that consideration or reflection suffices for the judgment that those words should be excised from our language. But I’m not sure that follows, actually, without begging some questions, but it entails a judgment of their character or actions. And on pretty thin grounds, it seems to me.

        In the past, I’ve said that I’m not a big fan of people’s feelings being the final arbiter in these types of discussions, and suggested something like respect as a less subjective, more concrete criterion of evaluation. Seems to me that failing to excise the r word from a person’s language could be consistent with respecting DD folks autonomy and dignity.


        (I say all this stuff, btw, as a person who actually has excised the r word from my lexicon. Maybe I’ve done so without giving the issue any real thought, tho.)Report

      • Pinky in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        “Retard” is an acceptable word in chemistry. I’d have no problem using the word “niggardly”, if it ever occurred to me to do so. Then again, I’ve talked to African-American auto mechanics about my car, which I bought at Koons. As with most word stuff, it throws you for a second, then you get used to it.Report

  13. Rose Woodhouse says:

    “No one is asking you not to use specific words with specific people.” I mean, any one person rather than a group of people.Report

  14. Rose Woodhouse says:

    @pinky puts his or finger (ha) on it here: “It requires a rule of thumb: courtesy. It’s discourteous to use terms that can reasonably be seen as insulting. It’s discourteous to insist that others change their vocabulary on the basis of your feelings. It’s a tough balance to find, as most things involving courtesy are.”

    The reason I make a caveat about specific people is that it seems unnecessarily burdensome on other people for me, personally, to say that I find the word “human” offensive and insist on being called “schmuman.” To accommodate each *individual’s* preferences. However, when we are talking about a significant number of people – with a shared property – who are more or less unanimously saying, “don’t use this word to describe us,” and one doesn’t have to remember anything intricate about a bunch of individual preferences, but a word for one large group, that seems a different matter.Report

    • Chris in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

      All of this is just schmuman nature, I suppose.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:


      “It’s discourteous to insist that others change their vocabulary on the basis of your feelings.”

      Is it though?

      Suppose I walk down the street wildly flailing my arms. I’m constantly whacking people on the head. Would it be discourteous of folks to ask me to walk differently?

      No one is saying people should be waterboarded or shamed the first time they offend someone. We are saying that the discourteousness displayed by folks who willfully refuse to consider how the words they use impact people far outweighs the discourtneousness that exists when folks ask to be identified in a non-offensive way. I don’t see it as a tough balance at all.Report

      • Notme in reply to Kazzy says:


        So how is it sexist to call Hillary “secretive” or “calculating?” Given her actions they seem perfect adjectives except for the liberal word police.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        I have no interest in answering for the actions of other people.

        Why can’t you stay on topic?Report

      • Notme in reply to Kazzy says:


        Frankly i dont see much if any difference between the Hillary’s word police and rose. Both are demanding that others change their language so they dont hurt someone’s feelings.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        “Call me Bill, not William.”
        “Call me developmentally disabled, not retarded.”
        “Call me a human of tinged pigmentation as a result of my ancestors’ homeland’s climate.”

        All of these are attempts to influence others language.

        Are all of equal validity?

        If not, do those of lesser validity impact those of greater validity?

        No one here is talking about Hilary, the terms we use to discuss women, or anything of that sort. Rose is making a specific case about a specific word.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Kazzy says:

        If I saw someone walking down the street flailing his arms, I’d assume that he was unable to stop doing it for some developmental, physical, or psychological reason. If you and I were walking down the street and he was coming toward us, I’d consider it discourteous if you asked him to stop. In fact, out of courtesy, if I thought you were about to ask him, I’d whisper to you, “don’t say anything, he’s probably mentally retarded”. Courtesy is definitely a tough balance.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

      Pinky put his finger on a rule of thumb.Report

  15. Tod Kelly says:

    I will confess I have a beef with this topic most of the time it’s brought up — though certainly not in this particular case with this particular writer. My problem with the way the topic is usually broached has more to do with the industry that is charged with caring for, supporting and/or advocating for people with DDs. (Full disclosure: As a board member for an organization that does all of these things I am one of those people.)

    The r-word is actually one in a long line of largely medically-origined terms that describe folks with DD. Almost all of these terms has, over time, been determined to be offensive because society at large has adopted that nomenclature to actually equate people they wish to mock with people with DD. At some point in the future, I suspect, “DD” too will be considered offensive as the general public decides that it is the term they should use to make that mocking comparison. So too will whatever term we agree should replace it.

    This, I believe, is because more than any group of at-risk or discriminated people, we who advocate for people with DD are bloody terrible at being willing to address the underlying issues that make using the people we advocate for such targets.

    The industry is very tight knit, which in a lot of ways is good — but it’s also incredibly cloistered. We tend to be happy to live in bubbles, mostly because it’s easy to do. Usually, the only time we ever bother to come out of these bubbles to engage the general public about our cause is to tell people who publicly use the r-word that they are being offensive — after which we go back in the bubble and hope we are left alone. And this repeated behavior of engaging only to hector, I believe, actually makes things worse for folks with DD in the long run.

    This is one of the reasons I so love what Rose is doing, especially her work over at the Daily Beast. I said on twitter recently that she’s doing — by far — the best journalism on DD subjects today. I still believe that. Every time she writes about her son or the DD population at large — and does so in a way that portrays them as human beings who are part of our community — she does more to chip away at the things that make people with DD a target than the entire industry I am associated with does in a year.

    I love Rose for a variety of reason, but mostly I love her for this.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      This was very moving to read. Thank you for writing it.

      I actually do have a problem with the fact that ending the r-word is the sole issue of justice for I/DD in the minds of the general pubic. We shouldn’t say the r-word, which matters – it’s more important to talk about justice in employment, health care, community inclusion.Report

      • Yup. Exactly.

        I’ll say this more directly here: Thanks, Rose, for what you do.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Speaking on behalf of the general public (snicker), there’s a vague sense that there’s some word that might be better than some other word, but it’s not viewed as an issue of justice. Complaints about words have become a steady background noise these days. Education and health care for the handicapped / disabled are visible, relatable issues.Report

  16. ScarletNumber says:

    Any thoughts on Tropic Thunder?Report