Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

That’s So Disabled!

Posted by Neal on May 28, 2009

The good news: Adam has picked up some more of the language of his peers. The bad news: It’s the adjective retarded. The good news: He’s not using the word to insult people. The bad news: He’s using it to describe things that only someone with mental retardation could appreciate, as in That’s retarded! This usage makes sense only with the support of a presupposition that mentally retarded people like things that other people find stupid, but that kind of argument is going to be hard to explain to a kid. This is the same kind of semantic shift as happened with gay — from describing a person to describing something that only that kind of person would like, with the hearer implicitly asked to agree that gay people like things that other people find stupid. There are kids for whom this connection is so attenuated that they refuse to believe it, saying, “It’s not insulting to say something is gay! You’re not insulting a person, you’re just saying the thing is stupid”, and I’m sure I’ll hear the same kind of defense of retarded as a thing-describing adjective.

It’s funny that Adam should learn this meaning of retarded right about now, because it was just recently that the Franklin County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (FCBMRDD around these parts) to remove Mental Retardation from its name, a decision based, of course, on the fact that retarded is used much more often as an insult these days than as a clinical diagnosis. And I don’t think the noun form retard, with the stress on re, was ever used as anything but an insult. The OED lists it as slang, with the first citation coming from 1971 in CIA mental retards. I don’t know exactly what the former FCBMRDD is going to call itself now; maybe they’re going to follow the lead of the American Association on Mental Retardation, which changed its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

One problem with that is that developmental disability includes disorders other than mental retardation. If newspapers make this change in terminology, then when they write that someone has a developmental disability, it’ll be for the reader to guess whether we’re talking mental retardation, autism, epilepsy, or something else. Now maybe in cases where it really matters, they’ll use a more specific term, but then they’ll be stuck: For someone with autism or epilepsy, they can say autism or epilepsy, but for someone with mental retardation, all they’ll have available will be developmental disability, with the result that developmental disability will be restricted more and more to mean mental retardation. The same thing seems to be going on with blind. Last month I read a story in the newspaper about one Kenneth Knight, a “visually impaired” hiker who got lost on the Appalachian Trail. Well, I wondered, how worried should we be? Is he just really nearsighted, or can he make out light and dark, or is he completely blind? The article didn’t say. Having done some followup research just now, I find that Knight is indeed blind; also the good news that he was eventually found after he lit a fire to help searchers find him.

There are a couple of processes involving Horn’s Q and R principles by which a word’s meaning gets restricted over time. One is called Q-based narrowing (discussed here before). To recap, Q-based narrowing occurs when you have a term A that can refer to a variety of situations, a term B that refers to a more specific kind of situation. Therefore, via the Q(uantity) principle, A is narrowed in meaning so as not to include the meaning of B: If the speaker had meant B, they would have said it. An example in one of the linked posts is chicken vs. rooster. Another process, which I haven’t talked about before, is R-based narrowing. Like Q-based narrowing, this process occurs when you have a term A that could apply to a variety of situations, but this time there’s no more specific term B. Just through common usage, however, A comes to refer to one kind of situation. A typical example is undertaker, which has come to mean someone who engages in a particular kind of undertaking, i.e. preparing bodies for burial. The name R-based narrowing is a reference to the R(elevance) principle of saying no more than you need to say. If everyone knows the most common situation that term A refers to, there’s no need to specify further in a typical situation. Of course, in non-typical situations, you’ll need to create a more specific term, so the end result is that “[t]he results of R-based and Q-based narrowing may be synchronically indistinguishable” (as Larry Horn puts it in the 1984 paper where he coins the terms).

I was trying to decide if the narrowing of developmentally disabled to mean “mentally retarded” and visually impaired to mean “blind” were examples of either of these processes. I wouldn’t call them Q-based or R-based narrowing, because here, there are more specific terms, not just for situations other than the ones we’re talking about, but for those very situations. Specifically, we have mentally retarded and blind. Of course, those are the very terms that the speaker is trying to avoid, whether because of pejorization (for retarded) or who knows what other reason (for blind). For now, I think I’ll refer to this kind of semantic narrowing as taboo-assisted Q-based narrowing. The reasoning I imagine going on in a speaker’s head is: “Hmm, the speaker used term A, which could mean x, y, or z. If they’d meant x or y, they’d have said x or y. They could mean z, but they’re not allowed to say z, so probably they’re saying A instead.” If any readers know of an already-existing term for this kind of situation, please leave a comment.

Another problem with using a new term, of course, is that developmental disability will become just as tainted as retarded did, just as idiot, moron, and imbecile did many years earlier, unless things develop so that there are no longer any negative attitudes toward what it refers to. One newspaper article even brought in Ohio State’s Brian Joseph to provide a quote making this point.

Yet another problem is that some health insurance companies have the term mental retardation written into their policies on what kind of services are covered. The way insurers work today, there are already plenty of opportunities that they can and do use to deny coverage, so imagine how many more phone calls and emails to customer service there will have to be before it’s all settled that developmentally disabled is the new word for mentally retarded. If legislatures pass laws like this, updating the term for some negative condition, they should also write in an automatic 20-year euphemism reevaluation, kind of how we allow for cost-of-living increases in Social Security payments. By that time, who knows, maybe disabled will have progressed along the same path as both retarded and gay, and we’ll get to hear kids saying, “That’s so disabled!”

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19 Responses to “That’s So Disabled!”

  1. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Ironically enough, I’ve caught myself using “lame” as a pejorative…despite being born with a disability that paralyzed me from the waist down. The literal meaning rarely comes to my mind, just as the literal imagery behind “That sucks” rarely occurs to someone who expresses disapproval that way. (Sometimes language change affects the least likely speakers; I wonder how many mentally disabled people have used “retarded”, or how many homosexuals have used “gay”, as thing-describng pejoratives?)

  2. Jan Freeman said

    I immediately thought of “lame” too, and the way it has changed over the years. I wasn’t allowed to use it when I was young, long ago, because there were still people around with polio braces, and my mom remembered imperfectly treated clubfeet (or maybe her mom did?). I think “lame” has been freed up for figurative use because we don’t use it literally, of limping people, anymore. (And I suspect many kids haven’t heard people described literally as “retarded” — the word has been taboo for a long time. “Slow” was the small-town terminology of my youth.)

    The OED has figurative “lame” dating to Chaucer: c1374 CHAUCER Troylus II. Prol. 17 Disblameth my yf ony word be lame. For as myn auctor seyde so sey I.

    And the slang to 1942: Lame: BERREY & VAN DEN BARK Amer. Thes. Slang §491/9 Easy to take, lame, soft,..easily victimized. 1955 Amer. Speech XXX. 303 Lame. Used to describe an oaf. ‘That cat is a real lame stud’…

  3. lynneguist said

    In the UK, ‘developmental disability’ is ‘learning disability’, which means that you need a raft of other terms for people with normal intelligence but specific impairments, like dyslexia or dyscalculia (is that the word?) CBATG.

    See here, if you’re interested…

  4. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    In Sweden, references to my specific disability (cerebral palsy) are almost never used in a literal, clinical sense anymore: I mistakenly called myself cp-skadad (damaged by CP) in a Swedish chatroom online, not knowing that I’d called myself a “retard” rather than identifying my health problem! *blush*

  5. Neal said

    Ingeborg: Thanks for bringing up lame; it’s a perfect example of this kind of semantic development, and I overlooked it. Maybe because (as Jan points out), it’s so rarely used to refer to people with spinal cord injuries, etc., and the association has faded as thoroughly for us as the gay-stupid/gay-homosexual association has for the next generation.

    Lynneguist: Thanks for the pointer to your post. Very thorough, and surprising, too. I never knew quite what spastic referred to; only that it was some outdated, now offensive term for a disability. For those who don’t check out Lynneguist’s post, it’s the disability that Ingeborg brings up in her second comment: cerebral palsy.

    In response to Ingeborg’s question about gay, here are a couple of comments from a forum I found when I searched for the phrase That’s so disabled:

    What I am saying is that my gay friends don’t have any problems whatsoever with people using the word gay in reference to something being crap/rubbish because they know that the context is totally different to the context in which the term is used in relation to their sexuality and therefore the word has no reference to them IN THAT CONTEXT.

    My gay friends refer to something as ‘gay’ if they don’t like it. It’s not necessarily homophobic. It’s the intent behind the word.

    I did find a few hits for That’s so disabled, usually posed rhetorically by someone complaining about the newest use of gay. Here’s an example:

    I equate it to such phrases as “that’s so Jewish” or “that’s so disabled” – no one would use those.

  6. hsgudnason said

    As a 60-year-old gay man, I find the first quotation in Neal’s comment interesting. I usually do take offense at the use of “gay” to mean crap/rubbish, and point out my displeasure on the rare occasions I hear people use it. (It’s not a common word in a business environment.) The quotation sounds, though, like something written by a young person, whose gay friends are presumably much younger than me.

    It’s a slightly different phenomenon from adopting offensive terms to refer to oneself and thus diffuse their sting (Quaker, queer, nigger…). The initial term (gay in its sexual sense) is mostly neutral and, as far as I know, self referential. (That is, it was gay people who first used the term to refer in code to themselves, in contrast to queer, which was a pejorative term later adopted by gays as a term of defiant pride.) If younger gay people accept “gay” now as both a term of identity and a pejorative unrelated to themselves, it’s an interesting split in meaning.

  7. The Ridger said

    Interesting. People do use “lame” in its original meaning when referring to animals, especially horses. But I never really thought about “that’s lame!” Funny things, words.

  8. hsgudnason said

    In one of the later Harry Potter books, it struck me when one of the characters called another a “stupid git.” That’s not an active part of my vocabulary, but I know the word, and assume that it comes from gitan. Given the carefully constructed diversity among Hogwarts students, I’m sure Rowling wouldn’t consciously use an offensive racial term, but “git” is probably so much a part of teenage British vocabulary that it never even occurred to her.

    In my youth, “gyp”–same source, equally offensive–was a fairly common word, but it seems to have dropped out of common use. I don’t think any sort of mass attack of cultural sensitivity had anything to do with it.

  9. AJD said

    I don’t know what “gitan” is, but “git” is from “get” and originally meant ‘bastard’, not a racial term.

  10. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    @AJD: “Gitan” is one of many names for the Romani people (“Gypsies”). However, your statement that the British insult “git” comes from “get” (an animal’s offspring, thus “bastard” figuratively) is correct. That word was never an ethnic slur of any kind.

  11. Ellen K. said

    At first I was thinking that I’ve heard visually impaired to mean people who have some sight. But, then, blind is also used that way. Key evidence that the term is restricted is that I wouldn’t apply the term to myself.

  12. hsgudnason said

    Thanks to AJD and Ingeborg. I obviously jumped to the wrong conclusion.

  13. Picky said

    I don’t quite understand in all this why it is OK to use the word “stupid”, which seems to me to mean mentally retarded or mentally inept. Doesn’t it?

  14. viola said

    I’ve always felt the word stupid should be used sparingly–not only towards others, but also toward oneself. Our boys have been instructed that retarded or lame is alright to describe something, but not someone–although sometimes I jokingly refer to myself as retarded and paraphrase it with, “It just means a little slow on a few points here and there!”
    Does anybody have anything to say about the word “hobo”? It’s used a lot by our boys and I believe it’s morphed its way into something other than a bum or disheveled clown.

  15. V.E.G. said

    For example, Chester William Cavaliere has cerebral palsy. Don’t call him crippled, call him Chester, Mr. Cavaliere, Cee Dub, or Chet. Cavaliere’s last name means gentleman and his remains were cremated per request, without any funeral or memorial.

  16. V.E.G. said

    As far as I know, William Douglas Porter is the oldest person with cerebral palsy known to exist. He has no immediate family. For the Cavaliere part, never call him crippled, call him such as C. W. God rest Chester Cavaliere’s soul.

  17. […] No R-based narrowing of free time on my watch. In my house, it will continue to refer to time you can spend as you wish, […]

  18. V.E.G. said

    Please, please, do not ever call Angela Irick, crippled. Call her Angela, Ms. Irick, or Angie. Irick is the distant cousin of Elbert Conway Irick, the owner of a saddle shop in Moffat County, Colorado.

  19. […] smart people use (the same way stupid can refer to things that only stupid people would like, and similar cases). But I think that if that’s what Grammar Girl meant, she would have called it 101 Words That […]

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