Appropriate Words

or, Being Sensitive and the End of Wheaton’s Law.

[Note: This post was originally going to be titled Meaning vs. Intent; or, Why Sensitive Language Is Hard but Important, but I forgot I already had a title when I started writing, and I didn’t remember until after I hit publish. This is that post from the the “week of vs” list.]

Part I: Lamer Than Lame

I attended AdaCamp SF two weeks ago, a conference by/for/about women in open technology and culture. I’ve been running in feminist circles since I was a teenager, and with the LGBTQ cause for just as long (though back then the initials weren’t as many), so I’m pretty used to the rhetoric around language and the power it has. I have to admit, though, that while we were going though the rules and processes that would run the weekend, there was a bit about using appropriate language had me rolling my eyes.

I think everyone in the English-speaking world is aware of our complicated slang rules. “Nigger” is a word that we should never use. Unless it’s a rapper? Definitely Paula Deen shouldn’t. Definitely I shouldn’t. I actually think that definitely rappers shouldn’t either. You can’t “reclaim” a word and take away its negative power unless it has, in fact, lost its power in the end. As long as that sensitivity exists, the word should just not be used. They didn’t tell us not to use words like “nigger” or “fag” at the conference; I think they assumed that everyone knows that’s unacceptable language.

Words we were informed at the conference that were considered inappropriate had more to do with dis/abilities. So when we were told to avoid words like “lame,” “crazy,” “idiot,” and “stupid,” I, like many others, rolled the aforementioned eyes and thought we were going a bit far in the quest for sensitivity. I may have started singing Nerf Herder’s Lamer Than Lame in my head. But by the end of the weekend I had changed my tune.

Yes, “lame” technically refers to being “unable to walk normally because of an injury or illness affecting the leg or foot,” not to being “uncool,” but would someone with that kind of disability really take offense when the word has so clearly taken on an alternate meaning in our culture? Maybe, maybe not, but the fact is that what’s happening here is that a word that references a specific kind of person has been substituted to mean something derogatory. The way we blithely exclaim, “That’s so lame!” is not really any different from the way a generation ago it was common to exclaim, “That’s retarded!” or “That’s so gay!” We are mostly caught up to the fact that the latter two aren’t okay. But the reason why it’s not okay is something we are failing to internalize and apply to other words.

Any time we use a person’s physical characteristics (including brain/mental ability) as a negative adjective, or a cultural symbol as a pejorative descriptor, we have done a bad thing. What’s disappointing is that we do it so unconsciously, and out of habit, but we really don’t need to. There are other words, more descriptive words, and most people are capable of coming up with those words. For those without the mental wherewithal to tap into a good vocabulary, there’s always a dictionary or thesaurus (look it up on your phone!). In the meantime, here are a few example substitutions, depending on context.

  • Lame — disappointing, bad, uncool, boring
  • Stupid — a bad idea, not fair,  has problems we’d need to solve
  • Crazy — shocking, not well thought out, appalling, acting strangely

Basically, if you’re using a word or phrase like one of these that gets applied to all sorts of things in a negative manner, but doesn’t convey a specific meaning, pick a word that does convey a specific meaning. After a weekend without words like this, I began to realize how often they’re used in our culture, and how much nicer it is when they aren’t. There’s a reason kindergarten teachers don’t let the kids call each other stupid.

So let’s stop using words that can make other people feel like crap.

Part II: Cunt vs. Dick

Thinking also about language people use to talk about women negatively (bitch, cunt, etc) that are not actually descriptions of behavior, I have to wonder why this one is so skewed. Yes, I want people to stop using words like “bitch” and “cunt” to mean “a woman who’s doing something I don’t like, disagree with, or find annoying.” But if “cunt” — the female genitals — is a word that shouldn’t be used to mean things other than female genitals, why is it okay to use “dick” — the male genitals — the same way?

“Don’t be a dick,” or Wheaton’s Law, is a mainstay of geek culture, but it’s ultimately predicated on the same misuse of language that calling someone a “cunt” is. “Don’t be a jerk” would get the same point across, but we gleefully use “dick” instead. Why? I like Wil Wheaton as much as the next nerd — I even bought the Codex and Fawkes poster for the cafe — but just because he’s cool doesn’t mean that this phrase doesn’t perpetuate a bad habit, and a negative one, despite the goal of creating better behavior. Ah, the irony.

From now on, I’m going to try not to call anyone a dick, or tell them not to be a dick. If I want men to stop using the words for my body parts to mean bad things, I should return the favor. So I will.

4 thoughts on “Appropriate Words

  1. Basically, if you’re using a word or phrase like one of these that gets applied to all sorts of things in a negative manner, but doesn’t convey a specific meaning, pick a word that does convey a specific meaning.

    I like this angle. I wish this were used more — exhorting people to specificity — rather than just listing “forbidden” words, which tends to be patronizing and cause a lot of eye-rolling.

    • Yeah, though I think they go hand in hand. Before being told that calling things/people “lame” wasn’t okay, I wouldn’t have thought of it as non-specific, since when we use a word (just like profanity) we definitely have a meaning in mind. It was only after a couple of days of stopping when I was about to say “lame” to think about what I really wanted to communicate that I realized what a lazy shortcut it was, aside from being hurtful to some of the people at the event.

    • Yep, I agree that this distinction is critical — not that “this word hurts people’s feelings” isn’t enough, but that’s a difficult distinction, and where does it ever end? When you focus instead on “use a more specific, creative, or interesting descriptor for what you mean,” it feels proactive instead of slippery-slope restrictive.

  2. I work with people who have developmental disabilities. I have a son who has autism. I have learned over the last 17 years just how hurtful words can be. This article is great, and I plan to share it with a lot of people. I love the idea of not just avoiding hurting people, but also being more specific about what we mean, and speaking more creatively. It makes all of us think more, and that is never a bad thing. Think about how lazy we can get with language! We are in danger of creating an Orwellian, 1984 type of language where we lump all the things we don’t want to think too hard about under a few over simplified or just plain inappropriate and offensive terms. When you call something “retarded” or “gay” or any other term like that, you are saying “that’s a bad thing, and I will compare it with this group of people who I don’t really understand or want to deal with which means they must be bad, because they aren’t like me and that is hard for me to understand or deal with”

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