Words interest me, which I suppose makes sense given that I do a lot of reading and writing. I’m particularly interested in the power that some words have, how we decide how much power to give them, and what informs our choices about what words to use. The idea of language reclamation seems quite appealing to me.
This post stems from a comment I received recently on a post about psychomotor retardation (a slowing of movement and thinking that can occur as a symptom of depression), and then the comments I got when I mentioned it in a weekend wrap-up post.
Bring on the accuracy
I’m big on accuracy and precision when it comes to language. That probably has a lot to do with my years of post-secondary education filled with a lot of technical language. I figure it’s hard to communicate effectively if people are using words that don’t mean what they want them to mean.
A major peeve of mine is the popular fusion in meaning of the terms psychotic and psychopathic, which actually mean very different things. It’s worse because it’s stigmatizing, but seriously people, open a damn dictionary. Vogue produced a video titled Margot Robbie’s Beauty Routine Is Psychotically Perfect that was a parody of American Psycho. What the actual fuck, Vogue? Get your damn parody right; American Psycho was about a psychopath, not someone who was psychotic (i.e. experiencing delusions, hallucinations, and/or formal thought disorder). You people publish a magazine and using a dictionary is beyond you? That kind of thing is what gets my knickers in a knot.
Anyway, because I prioritize accuracy and precision, I’m not so concerned about connotations, because those are so individual and subjective. In my mind, using retard (emphasis on the first syllable) as a noun is pejorative and doesn’t have alternate meanings. Because of this pejorative meaning, it makes sense to me not to use the word retardation in the context of intellectual disabilities, although changing the wording isn’t going to magically change people’s attitudes.
Outside of that context, though, retard (emphasis on the second syllable) as a verb just means slow and retardation just means slowing. It seems odd to me to expect those words in other contexts to be wiped from the English language.
The euphemism treadmill
Returning to the point about not magically changing attitudes, I’m also very interested in Steven Pinker’s euphemism treadmill concept. It’s the idea that neutral words become tainted by negative attitudes towards whatever they represent, so every so often, those tainted words are replaced by new neutral words that mean essentially the same thing (e.g. n****** -> negro -> black). Until the negative attitudes change, the euphemism treadmill keeps chugging along.
My attitude towards person-first language is also influenced by my focus on accurate and precise use of words. “I am a person with a mental illness” means exactly the same thing as “I am mentally ill” based on the way the English language normally behaves, but the former is wordier and more awkward.
To me, expecting people to use more awkward language to say the same thing doesn’t make a lot of sense. We use all kinds of neutral and positive adjectives to describe ourselves (e.g. Canadian, intelligent), and those adjectives aren’t taken as being all that we are and all that we ever will be until the end of time. If people react that way to “I am mentally ill”, that’s stigma, not grammar. If the grammar makes sense and the words are accurate, I’m not inclined to work myself up over those word choices.
Slang will be slang
It seems to me that there will always be a demand for slang terms to refer to people who seem really, really dumb (in a non-IQ-related way) or who are saying/doing things that make absolutely no sense (in a non-psychiatric sense). It’s unfortunate that terms like retard and crazy overlap with terms that people associate with intellectual disabilities and mental illness, but I don’t think language policing them is likely to do much good if the associated ask is for people to use non-slang words instead.
If we’re going to tell people to stop using those words, we need to come up with a better ask. It would certainly be nice if we could collectively move towards alternate slang, but people aren’t going to just stop using slang to refer to those concepts.
When it comes to words like crazy that I think it would be pissing in the wind to try to word police, I tend to favour reclamation. Language reclamation is the process of taking back ownership of words that have been used in a pejorative sense and using them to refer to the in-group in a positive way. If I’m proudly calling myself crazy or mad, that takes away from the power that others have to use those words against me. There are a variety of examples of this within the LGBTQ community, like queer and dyke (this Advocate article has more).
A particularly interesting example of reclamation is the N-word. It’s considered completely socially inappropriate and racist for anyone outside the Black in-group to use that word, but it can be used in a positive sense within that in-group to represent brotherhood.
When is it okay if people are offended?
I’m not trying to say that it’s not valid for people to feel triggered by words that carry negative connotations. I’m just not sure that we all need to collectively stop using words that are accurate in a non-pejorative context in response to some people being triggered. That being said, people absolutely deserve not to be referred to by words they find offensive; it’s basic respect to call (or not call people) people what they wish to be called (or not called).
I certainly wouldn’t refer to an intellectually disabled person as retarded, as that community of people has made it abundantly clear that that term is offensive to them; however, I’m not going to stop using accurate terminology like psychomotor retardation in an entirely different context to refer to my own depressive symptoms. I’m not prepared to give that word in that context that much power. Not everyone is going to agree with me, and that’s fine; that can inform their own language choices, but it’s not going to dictate mine.
What do we give power to?
Words only have as much power as we choose to give them. It interferes with our ability to communicate when we use words inaccurately or imprecisely, so that’s good to avoid. It’s disrespectful to call people things they don’t want to be called, so that’s also good to avoid. But beyond that, the more power we give to words, the more power they have to cause harm.
There will always be people who try to weaponize words, and telling those people what to say or not say is very unlikely to stop them. However, if we refuse to give them and their words that power, perhaps by reclaiming those words, they’re less effective weapons. There will probably always be people who have negative attitudes about things like disabilities or mental illness, and those attitudes are going to shine through no matter what words they use.
I suspect quite a few people don’t share my views, and that’s okay. What are your thoughts on how much power we should give to words? Do you see language reclamation as a potentially useful strategy?