Guest Post by Wiley Reading
One of the first rules I learned in my Feminism Immersion ExperienceTM is that the words you use matter. The Associated Press agrees, as do many who’ve been advocating for more inclusive “people-first” language for decades. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, used the term “citizen of color” in 1963, and the term “Person of Color” was already widely used by the time I was born in 19881. In the twenty-four years since, we’ve made great strides in changing our language to eradicate slurs and bigoted terms, more accurately describe marginalized groups, and avoid stereotyping populations.
Most of the country has a sense of the real linguistic Bad Guys. You know, “the n word,” “tr*nny,” “the r word.” Much of the country is aware of the lower-level offenders: “dyke2,” “bitch,” “spaz.” Some of us are even sensitive to terms that have only recently been recognized as inaccurate or outdated: “hermaphrodite,” “Hispanic.”
I want to talk about the words we forget about. The ones that either seem so harmless that it seems unimportant to replace them, or the ones that are so ingrained in our slang that it seems nearly impossible to avoid them.
These words matter too. And it’s not as difficult to find workarounds as it might seem. I can think of dozens of these little linguistic landmines, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on three: lame, crazy, and tacky.
- Why it should be avoided: This country has a shitty record when it comes to accommodating and respecting people with disabilities. The Americans With Disabilities Act, federally prohibiting discrimination based on (dis)ability, wasn’t even passed until 1990. And we certainly don’t have a great history of talking about people with mental and physical disabilities respectfully. Lame might seem like a tame word, but it is a word used to describe a certain physical handicap. Giving a word used to describe a disability a negative connotation is…well, you can imagine why that’s not a good idea.
- What to say instead: unoriginal, trite, boring, hackneyed, annoying, useless, quotidian, frustrating, corny, dull, tired, futile, pointless, silly, inane etc…
- Why it should be avoided: Just like “lame,” crazy is a word that’s used to describe people with disabilities–in this case, mental illness. Much as giving words used to describe people with physical disabilities negative connotations is bad, linking words used to describe people who have mental illnesses or who are non-neurotypical with undesirable behaviors or circumstances is a poor idea.
- What to say instead: If you’re talking about a person, be specific. Is she frustrated? Is he rude? Is she loud? Is he disrespectful? Is she breaking social norms? Is he ignoring boundaries? Name the bad behavior, don’t assume it stems from mental illness, or erroneously associate rude or inconsiderate behavior with mental illness. If you’re talking about a circumstance or an idea, here are some alternate words: ridiculous, frustrating, intense, inconvenient, weird, absurd, senseless, laughable, screwy, unreasonable, irregular, unconventional etc…
- Why it should be avoided: This is a word that’s used to delineate classes of people. Rich people use it to shame poor people, and poor people use it to police each other. It is very strongly linked to economic resources–if you have them, or if you can pretend to have them. When my Evil Stepmother3 wanted to make me feel like shit about myself, she’d tell me the clothes my mother had bought me were tacky. When people say “that’s tacky” often the subtext is “that looks like it didn’t cost much,” and the implication is that it’s bad that it didn’t. This word is slightly different from crazy or lame because it’s not an adjective used to describe a certain kind of person that has come to have negative connotations–it’s something different. It’s a word that evolved specifically to separate people into groups: people with good (read: expensive) taste, and people with bad (read: lower-class/poor) taste. When someone embezzles, we don’t say “That’s tacky,” because embezzling is not a crime specific to poor people. We say “That’s tacky” when someone makes out with their boyfriend in public, because we have long associated public sexuality with the lower classes. We don’t say “That’s tacky” when we’re looking at a piece of abstract art we don’t like, because we’re aware it’s worth thousands of dollars. We do say “That’s tacky” when someone has a collection of cabbage patch dolls in their living room, because we earmark cabbage patch doll collection as a poor person’s avocation.
- What to say instead: I’m not sure what use there is in describing any person or thing as tacky, since it seems mean-spirited and fairly pointless, but if you’d like to say you don’t like the way something looks or the way someone’s conducting themself, identifying the specific quality or behavior and criticizing it is the way to go.
Using people-first language, and remembering all the words that might hurt someone’s feelings or perpetuate an “ism” is HARD when you’ve been raised in this linguistic climate. I forget, for example, not to say “crazy” ALL the time. But I try because I want to be a person who speaks respectfully. Even more crucially, I am aware that language shapes thought and I want my thought to be as creative and free of stereotypes and prejudice as possible.
1 William Saffire, “ON LANGUAGE; People of Color,” The New York Times, November 20, 1988.
2 Some terms, like dyke, are being reclaimed by some segments of the population they apply to.
3 No, really.