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Inappropriate Language: Some Notes on Words and Context

So, this exchange. Shall we?

Some attendees said they were planning to air ads attacking conservative Democrats who were balking at Mr. Obama’s health-care overhaul. “F—ing retarded,” Mr. Emanuel scolded the group, according to several participants. – Peter Wallsten, Wall Street Journal

Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the “N-word” or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking… No comment from his boss, the president? – Sarah Palin, Facebook

There are a few things that come to mind, immediately, when I look at this. I’ll tell you about them for a while, and then the shouting will start.

The first thing is that I started to eliminate the word “retarded” from my vocabulary a while ago. What happens, when you take any word out of your average everyday roster of words, is that you notice how much you use that word in the first place, and how involuntary it often is: you stop thinking about it for a second, and it just pops out, or you start reaching for a better word, and then notice that you are reaching. This happened when I stopped using “bitch,” “cunt,” “pussy,” all of it; you’re talking, and then there’s a hole in your speech where there wasn’t before, a new set of ellipses. She’s such a… I settled on “dick,” a while ago, because that’s funny. And now I’m back to using “bitch,” but never for other ladies and only in reference to myself, mostly with an absurd suffix because I want to make it a lighthearted and non-venomous word, which I can do because I am a lady and I own it. “Retarded” I don’t own, so it’s just gone. I had to come to terms with the fact that this bit of language was tied to ideas I didn’t want to support, and get rid of it. If anyone is listening, the official Tiger Beatdown Program is that we should not use retarded to mean “bad” or “stupid.” It is very gross, for reasons I will detail below.

But here is the other thing it makes me think of: a while ago, at a bar, my boyfriend was describing a movie that he found offensive and exploitative on the subject of intellectual disabilities. And he was detailing the many over-the-top and gross ways in which the movie exaggerated or dwelled on or manipulated the audience with the lead character’s disability, and focusing to some degree on the details of the actor’s performance, and laughing because bad movies are funny, even when they’re also offensive. And some douchebucket leaned over the separation between tables, and was like, “well, I hope you enjoy making fun of disabled people.” Which: thanks for listening in on this conversation, but would it have troubled you too much to just listen to all of it, Mister? Because, you know, the problem my boyfriend had with intellectual disability in this movie is the same problem that I have with mental illness in the movie K-PAX (or, you know, the character of Hurley on Lost): allowing a roomful of non-disabled people the chance to masturbate their own compassion by feeling sorry for an actor pretending to have some vaguely defined developmental shit, or positing that Maybe The Mentally Ill Simply Have Special Gifts, rather than being honest about the fact that they have what is in fact a pretty painful and life-altering disease, is gross and ableist, and masquerades as compassion when really all it’s doing is convincing you, the non-disabled person, of how very righteous you are. In much the same way that, say, hissing the proof of your superior compassion at a stranger in a bar does.

The Palin/Emanuel exchange makes me think of both of these things. And it opens up what is a continual question for me, which is that I can’t help but feel that this is one of the core problems with language debates: sometimes the game gets shifted around, the word itself becomes the problem and not the actual underlying attitude of which the word is a symptom. Because although the words are bad, and there are a million reasons to stop using them, they are also not even remotely the core of the issue.

So, you get a situation in which Rahm Emanuel uses the word “retarded.” He uses the word “retarded” like a whole bunch of other people have used, and still compulsively use, and do not think about using the word “retarded.” And then Sarah Palin gets to be the voice of sensitivity to the disabled. And fuck whether or not Sarah Palin’s policies are actually good for the disabled – they’re not, in fact; if she even had anything coherent enough to qualify as a “policy” it would be a systematic evisceration of the sort of social support networks that many disabled people need, because what she actually stands for (again: if she has ever given anything enough sustained thought to create a platform on which to stand) is a system in which the only people who are able to survive, with disabilities, are the children of really extraordinarily privileged rich people. You know, like the son of Sarah Palin. Because, you know, Mommy will pull you up with her own bootstraps and all of that, and just don’t look at all the other kids whose Mommies don’t have bootstraps to pull on, those Mommies are lazy-ass bitches who just never got around to being multimillionaires and so their children deserve to suffer. A woman who charges victims for their own rape kits, and who hollers “socialism” whenever someone suggests we have an obligation to all Americans, even the poor ones, is not a woman who is in any way qualified to occupy the higher moral ground in a conversation about disability. You cannot separate class, healthcare, or the fiscal responsibilities of the state to its citizens from the conversation about disability. You simply cannot.

But, you know: Emanuel used the word. She pointed out that it was a fucked-up word. It is a fucked-up word. So, according to one specific version of the game – the game played by people who have no investment in the actual process, the actual structure, the sort of game where people get their politics through soundbites and focus exclusively and obsessively on their own comfort and just basically believe that they are Nice People so they should take whatever the Nice Person stance is today, especially if it doesn’t require too much thought aside from shaking their heads about the bad word the bad man said, or maybe (maybe at most) not using that word any more themselves – according to this version of the game, Sarah Palin wins.

It’s not that I don’t get why we have political arguments about language. Words have power. Of course they do. Their power is to communicate concepts and define the reality of a situation. When someone uses “gay” to mean “gross and weird,” or when someone describes a person as “acting like a bitch” to denote that this person is being weak or over-emotional, or (if the person is a lady) not weak or emotional enough, or when someone casually appropriates the term “rape” to mean anything other than forced sex, I feel queasy. The reason I feel queasy is that using those words, in that way, is an act that relies on underlying concepts that are terrible. It relies on the idea that gay people are gross and weird, that women are and ought to be weak and hurtable, and that rape is not a serious enough crime for you to shudder at the mention of it, although Lord knows when a woman actually uses the word “rape” to describe her own experience you will start finding reasons why she shouldn’t be allowed to do that because, you know, It Is A Serious Crime And Let’s Not Trivialize It and all that. The words don’t mean anything unless you’ve got that structure of thought underlying them; if this weren’t true, people could just pick up the word “gay” from a “that’s so gay” statement and replace it with any given word in the English language, to the same effect. Yet I cannot start randomly going “that’s so coriander” if I want you to know what I mean. The reason people work to limit women’s ability to use the word “rape,” the reason that people work to defend the ability of guys to use it in non-rape contexts, and the reason that these are frequently the same people, is that words have power, and give their users power. Naming something is a way of asserting that you have the ability to define it. So, yes: your language matters. It makes sense to fight about bad language, because language is one of the most fundamental ways we use our power.

But language is also complicated. The reason a lot of people (thoughtful people, anyway) object to language debates is that they seem to oversimplify  or misunderstand how language works. I’m sympathetic to that argument, to some degree. It’s undeniably true that words get re-purposed all the time – “gay” itself being a really prime example. But it takes a long time, or a major paradigm shift, or both, for semantic shifts on that level to occur. You need what would appear to be centuries of “gay” picking up steam as a euphemism for “slutty,” you need people slyly re-purposing the word for their own particular variety of socially-unapproved sexiness so that they can hint at their sexuality without getting in trouble, you need that usage in turn to pick up steam, and you need Stonewall, and you need the decision to go with “gay,” this by now much-evolved bit of sound and code, as an alternative to other labels that are openly pejorative, either because they used to be clinical diagnoses of mental illness or because they are just plain slurs. And then – and then! - this word “gay” becomes a pejorative itself, based on the new meaning.

It takes a while, is my point, for the phrase “my, don’t you look gay in your new ensemble” to go from “you look like you are ready for a party” to “you seriously look like you are ready to put out at that party” to “we are surrounded by a room full of people at this party, and thus cannot acknowledge the way you like to put out, but I happen to be down with putting out that way my very own self” to “I hate your t-shirt, but am for some reason talking fancy.” The meanings overlap in a lot of different ways throughout the history, and it gets tricky, but the overall shift in meaning is clear – we can’t get back to the first stop from the current one. There’s no return, “gay” as “totally and asexually ready for a festive occasion” is just done.

So, you could argue, and people have, that separating “gay-means-weird” and “gay-means-dudes-who-find-dudes-sexy” is another step in the evolution of this word, and that sooner or later people won’t see the slur on gay people in the phrase “that’s so gay,” just like they don’t see the clinical diagnosis that turned into the slur that turned into the commonly used word “idiot.” It’s possible, maybe even likely. The word “gay” is evolving in a lot of different directions, I think; I’ve heard gay people use it in the pejorative sense to take the power out of it, and I’ve heard some young radical GLBT people actually use it in a different pejorative sense altogether, “gay” as in “aligned with a specific privileged yuppie kind of GLBT activism that I wish to distance myself from.” On this topic, my thoughts are: what are the chances that I, a lady who likes to do it with the dudes, can have enough history and personal experience to even talk about those usages without being a massive and annoying straightsplainer? “None” seems like an accurate estimation. But  if we are talking about the ways that I, a straight person, have been allowed or encouraged to use the word – the pejorative and the descriptive – the problem is, the semantic shift argument just doesn’t hold water. Because “gay” still means gay, and right now you can’t trace a definitive line of separation between the pejorative and the descriptive; the reason it’s pejorative springs from the thing it describes. They’re not homographs; they’re the same word. So I don’t use the pejorative sense. And that is pretty much that.

Maybe this is all troublingly wordy and Let’s Go To College of me, but the point is: I don’t say “that’s so gay” because, when I was growing up, it was part of an actual social context that included very blatant and scary homophobia and hatred of gay people. The kids, they didn’t separate the two, at least not until Eminem taught them that it was okay to say “gay” as long as you clarified that it just meant “awful;” “that’s so gay” was of a piece with gay jokes and the conception of all gay men as deviants or “effeminate” caricatures (who were so gross, right, because they reminded you of women) and people flat-out saying that they didn’t have a problem with the gays as long as they didn’t “act gay” and that they construed the phrase “act gay” to cover a variety of behaviors including but not limited to “doing it with other gay dudes.” I can’t separate the word from that attitude and that history.

And “retarded,” as a pejorative, springs from the same sort of history. How do you get a retard to kill himself? Hand him a knife, and then you slam your fist against your chest repeatedly, which is the punchline of this hilarious joke. It springs from a context in which the thirty non-disabled kids made fun of and tormented the four disabled kids who rode the bus with us, unless they’d decided to earn Good Kid Points or the bus driver was watching, in which case they were annoyingly condescending and intrusive and all up in the kids’ business, trying to “help” them to prove how “nice” they were even though their objective knowledge of what the kids’ specific disabilities were or what kind of help they might legitimately require amounted to precisely Zero. “Retarded,” in the pejorative sense, means “deeply, extremely, permanently stupid,” which is based on a misunderstanding or an unwillingness to understand what a developmental disability actually is. To compare someone who is stupid – meaning someone who, with all the chances in the world, is flat-out just too lazy or self-centered or thoughtless or wrongheaded to learn – to someone who has an actual disability which limits their ability to learn or display that they have learned certain things, is… well, it’s real real dumb, is what it is. You can’t enforce a boundary, at this given moment in time, between descriptive and pejorative – like you can do, right now, with “idiot” or even “hysterical.” The reason it’s a pejorative springs from the thing it describes, and although replacement words for “retarded” have been put forth, a lot of people still use the same word to mean both things.

So, no. Rahm Emanuel shouldn’t have used that word. People were right to call him out for the usage of that word. It might, for some people, be what I guess we have no option but to call a “teachable moment,” because that usage is so very very widespread, and because most people who do it aren’t operating from intentional malice, but from a sort of privileged thoughtlessness that prevents them from examining this word in context, and maybe – maybe - a few of those people will get the chance to do that examination now.

But maybe they won’t. Because here is the thing: it is the ability to communicate concepts and define the reality of a situation from which the power of words is derived. When they become pure noise – divorced from reality, divorced from concepts, used at odds to the concepts and realities they should be defining – that’s when this all gets hairy. I can’t say “that’s so gay” because it makes me sick, because I know what it means. I started working to eliminate “retarded” from my vocabulary a while back, because I thought about it and now I know what it means. But it’s when someone like Sarah Palin can score points by saying that the word “retarded” is wrong, although her career is based on a politics that is measurably bad for a lot of disabled people (and, you know, everyone else) that I start to get worried.

I mean, I have no doubt that Sarah Palin loves her son. Pretty much everybody loves their children, except for monsters, and even they usually think they love their children, disastrous though that love might be in effect. And I have no doubt that thinking about disability plays a large part in her day-to-day life – maybe specifically her son’s disability, though she does seem to spend a lot of time talking about parenting a child with a disability in general, and obviously the two are interconnected, so let’s not play percentage games with her intentions here, or give priority to rumors that she uses the word “retarded” herself in reference to her kid, because that is just gossip and we have better than gossip to back this argument up. Sarah Palin loves her disabled family member and so do I. Sarah Palin apparently thinks it’s pretty fucked-up to say “retarded” and so do I. None of that makes her statement any less cynical, or hollow, or gross. Because personal investments and language games can’t replace an engagement with the actual structure.

That would be the easy answer, right? It’s such an easy answer that it’s the answer a lot of people depend upon. If you just don’t use the bad words, we are in a safe space; if you just don’t use the words, you are on the side of good; if you just don’t use the words, you are an activist; if you just don’t use the words, you’ve done all that anyone can expect you to do. But language is a symptom, not the disease. Language is a product of thought, not the thought. Language is an act, not the motive underlying the act. Language is an effect of the structure, not the structure. And although language shapes thought, gives us the tools we have to understand the world and thus limits and informs what we can know – you can get all French-theory with me in the comment section – changing language isn’t going to take us anywhere unless we change the structure itself.

Which is not Sarah Palin’s goal. Not even remotely. There is no purpose, behind her Facebook post and her call-out of Emanuel, beyond continuing a program of obstructing a Democratic agenda and the current President. It’s precisely as duplicitous as the cries of “sexism” in the right during the primaries. Is there sexism in the Democratic Party, and in the treatment of Sarah Palin? Fuck yes, there is. Was Rahm’s use of the term ableist? Is there ableism in the left?  Was the response to the ableism handled poorly? Fuck yes, to every single one of those questions. But pointing that out when you know that your own party and/or political agenda isn’t going to prioritize social welfare programs which would help the disabled, when they’re trying to make universal access to healthcare impossible, when you don’t have a compassionate stance on the issues of unemployment and poverty to which disability is inexorably linked, when you are opposing abortion rights and charging victims for their rape kits, is just about the most disgusting corruption of these legitimate issues – these issues about which I care immensely – that I can imagine. Palin’s response isn’t about ableism, or about Rahm Emanuel; if it were, she would be talking about Rahm Emanuel and ableism, rather than sneakily using both subjects to get in a jab at Obama. Palin’s response is about Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.

But – again – if she knows how to use the language, she wins. Because she is able to sound, for a moment, like the people who are genuinely engaged in talking about disability, and the structure that punishes and hurts people with disabilities. Which is where language debate gets scary. Because if we put forward, for one second, a language debate that isn’t irrevocably tied to structure – if we focus on language apart from the actual change that needs to happen – everything we care about gets stolen and re-purposed in the service of something else. Words have power. For example, they can be used to tell a pretty enormous lie.

49 Comments

  1. A'Llyn wrote:

    I am so deeply in love with this post right now! The power of language, the multitudinous meanings of words, the shifty boundaries…fascinating, and troublesome, and worthy of extended reflection. Love it.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  2. muz wrote:

    Awe.Some. Sady, you are fierce and brilliant and ten kinds of kickass.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  3. meloukhia wrote:

    As a card carrying member of the language police, I would like to say that I endorse this post. When the language debate gets oversimplified to “you used a bad word!” and totally misses the structural underpinnings, it’s not going to be a productive conversation.

    After all, one can avoid all the “bad” words and still be sexist, ableist, homophobic, etc. So much right on with the identifying language as the symptom, not the problem, Sady.

    And to see Sarah Palin of all people being held up as some sort of champion of us disabled peeps…well…it makes me extremely grumpy.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  4. Lacey wrote:

    I love this post and really believe it goes to the heart of the issue. I do believe that words have power and it is important to understand and wield that power responsibly. However, I believe it’s insulting to the American people that Palin can purport to be disgusted at ableism, for the sake of a sound byte, and continue to support policies, as you mentioned, that veritably fuck over the population for which she claims to have so much concern. Ableism and classism at its worst.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  5. smadin wrote:

    I’m going right back up to finish reading, but this jumped out at me

    sometimes the game gets shifted around, the word itself becomes the problem and not the actual underlying attitude of which the word is a symptom.

    and I had to hop down here real quick to say YES YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES. I have sometimes had considerable trouble articulating that thought in a way that made sense to me and/or whoever was listening to me at the time, so thank you. Now back to reading!

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink
  6. smadin wrote:

    Having finished reading: Wow. This is a really fantastic post, Sady. Thank you again. If you’re ever in Boston, drinks are on me.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  7. Andy G wrote:

    “Because she is able to sound, for a moment, like the people who are genuinely engaged in talking about disability”

    Loved this post! This reminded me of something I read about how oppressive groups will appropriate progressive language/arguments for their own ends – for instance, British MPs who opposed votes for women at home would use feminist arguments to criticise “barbaric” Islamic countries for their treatment of women.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  8. Special K wrote:

    Wow, that’s a really brilliant post – thanks. When I read what SP wrote on Fb I was pretty skeeved out but couldn’t quite express why – but, you nailed it.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 6:26 pm | Permalink
  9. Anemone wrote:

    I’m a recent convert to not using pejorative language myself, and it’s hard! I really liked this post, and you are so right that appearing to do the right thing just isn’t enough, but I happened to notice that you missed a couple yourself, though. You used dumb and fucked up as pejoratives. Fuck and crazy are the ones I struggle with most myself right now.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 7:05 pm | Permalink
  10. Amy wrote:

    This was probably naive of me, but I was surprised that Palin went on the Glenn Beck show. She’d been pretty serious in standing up to David Letterman. And I hated the left-wing apologists for Letterman.

    I mean, I knew she was partisan. I knew it was lip-service. Of course some/most of her outrage is politically motivated. But he insulted her (and me) so baldly (I mean, in SUCH an obvious way), that I thought she’d at least… I don’t know, try to save face?

    BECK: I’m just saying, Beck-Palin, I’ll consider. But Palin-Beck—can you imagine, can you imagine what an administration with the two of us would be like? What? Come on! She’d be yapping or something, and I’d say, “I’m sorry, why am I hearing your voice? I’m not in the kitchen.”

    It’s weird. I had no respect for her before. At least, I didn’t think I had any. Turns out she could sink lower, because he made this statement waaaay before she went on his show.

    So I appreciate this, because I haven’t figured out how to voice my frustration with her. She’s learned the buzz-words perfectly. This is why I think she’s more dangerous, in some ways, than Beck or Coulter or O’Reilly. Because she uses the language of choice to argue for stripping women of choice. She uses the language of feminists without being a feminist, and only against her stated enemies. Here she is again; crying ablest when she clearly doesn’t care beyond her own son. So we slowly lose the meaning behind the words.

    Sorry. Wordy comment is wordy.

    Okay. Ummm. I almost deleted that last little bit when I remembered the recent post you made about women who apologize for everything. But I think I’ll let it stand, and just acknowledge that I don’t really need to apologize.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  11. Shauna wrote:

    One of the things about growing up as an extremely sheltered kid is that I never felt comfortable using “gay” or “retarded” in a slang manner. And although the usage of certain words *IS* horrible, I also learned very early on about the trouble with being somewhat ignorant to slang and how tough things can be if you are ignorant to the meaning, however reprehensible you may find it.

    When I was in 7th grade, I was in PE and playing flag football. It was a horribly blustery day (as it was late Fall) and I remember that I was on a team with a bunch of guys. They kept calling this other guy on the team by this neat nickname and I kind of felt like it would be cool to get a nickname too (note: this was probably a stupid thing to ask a bunch of 7th grade boys to do). So, they started calling me “Blow Job.” Now, obviously, being a sheltered kid, I took the term literally, as my hair was basically being windswept all over the place and I assumed that this was specifically to do with the fact that I had long hair that kept BLOWING all over the place while the rest of them had short, gelled hair and such.

    I remember going home and exclaiming with excitement to my mom about my new “nickname” and she looked at me aghast. We even had an argument about what it meant. I argued that it MUST mean the literal meaning, seeing as the wind had messed up my hair and it was all in good fun anyway. My mom seemed to think that they were trying to make me sound like a harlot.

    Imagine that, after finding out the SLANG CONTEXT of the term, I suddenly got INCREDIBLY embarrassed and felt incredibly ashamed.

    The power of the word itself was nowhere nearly as potent as finding out what EVERYONE ELSE felt that word/phrase meant and how they regarded said word/phrase.

    So, needless to say, one of the most important things that I have learned from being semi-socially retarded (and I mean that in the literal, non-slang way), is that if you are removed from mainstream society, you will often have to spend a longer amount of time learning the so-called “code” in order to interface properly with that society.

    And however much we want to rail against the unfairness and obnoxious nature of mainstream society, that is the main experience and mode of interaction that we are thrust into every day with everyone else.

    The most important thing I would consider adding to your point is that “code switching” is incredibly important in addition to the usage of words. Based on intonation and sentence structure, the same words can be used but with an entirely different meaning, and that can be confusing as hell.

    I’ve found that most conversations to me are kind of like the verbal version of double-dutch. You have people swinging the rope and not only do you have to jump in at the right time and stay at the correct frequency and cadence, but you must also know the proper moves and words to be an accepted part of the whole thing.

    While political pandering may specifically be used as a way to sling mud back and forth, it can also be used to create identifiable code-patterns that are comforting to a large body of the voting public.

    Even though the usage of words might be odious, especially to those of us who are conscious about the implications of slang and the subsequent damage it does to non-mainstream groups, there is also the simple fact that USING these words can create an entirely desirable space for people who have similar beliefs. And in politics, the majority beliefs rule, regardless of how disgusting or harmful they may be.

    I do not seek to say that one person is right for using slang terms to slander an entire population of people, but in the world of politics, it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about how many people are affected and drawn to follow one’s side. And often, even the “mistakes” are fuel for attention for a political party, regardless of the fallout for one particular member of that party (who can easily become a scapegoat and be cast aside in order to create a moral “cleansing” of the party itself, thereby strengthening the voter following).

    I am not really sure how to wrap all of this up, but as far as I’m concerned, most of the time words are misused, they are misused because of ignorance, lack of education, and simply because they grew up in such an environment where these words were used as such by all those who were important to them and their peers.

    Even in some context, being able to look down on people for using slang and “hateful” meanings of certain words, is yet another sort of privilege; the privilege of the educated individual who not only has the time and money to learn beyond the force-fed cultural dogma but also who has the social status of a person who knows how to critically think (which is sadly quite lacking in our society).

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  12. Randy wrote:

    I generally agree with this sentiment, but you seemed to totally ignore the original paradigm shift of Gay meaning Happy to Gay meaning Homosexual. It IS entirely possible for that shift to happen, and I think that people who want to be treated equal and get that shift to happen need to also understand that equal is a good and a bad thing.

    Equality seems to be glorified as having people treat you well, when in actuality equality is people treating you with neutrality on the underlying topic that caused the disturbance. If gay people don’t flip out at the use of the term, the shift is more likely to happen.

    Now, retard I understand as people with mental disabilities can’t defend themselves generally, but I personally have no real contact with a mentally disabled person so I’ve yet to bother censoring myself in using retard as something stupid. I’m still going to so lower class people against the health care reform are retards.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Permalink
  13. sqbr wrote:

    Yes! This is it exactly! I was having a conversation about this topic the other day and couldn’t articulate my point at all, now I can just go: This! :)

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 12:08 am | Permalink
  14. Divya wrote:

    But, but! What did your boyfriend *say* to that douchebucket? I must know!

    Kidding, this is a fantastic post which contains all the logic on the subject that I can never come up with when I really need it.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 1:31 am | Permalink
  15. Maud wrote:

    I’m making everyone on the planet read this. Just as soon as that power is mine.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 2:16 am | Permalink
  16. Samantha b. wrote:

    I also tend to think that the use of the word “retarded” reflects a wider societal anxieties, i.e. the fears induced by a socially Darwinist society where the worst thing that could possibly befall a person is to lack the ability to play the game by its consistently arbitrary rules. So it troubles me quite a bit to have someone in a position to shape our socially Darwinist society using that term. He’s also intimating that it’s OK to have no safety net, that vast inequities of wealth are justified, and that corporate callousness is appropriate and reasonable. I do feel like the use of the word “retarded” is a horrific slur against a class of people, but I also feel like it’s a term with wider resonance, and that from Rahm’s mouth, it’s a scary swipe at everyone who isn’t a Harvard-trained investment banker whose home has a sweeping view of the park.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 4:39 am | Permalink
  17. I like how you are correct; this is the sort of nuance that’s usually missing from Bad Words debates (such as they are).

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 5:17 am | Permalink
  18. Ashley wrote:

    Really great post. Discussions of structure vs. language and the interplay of structure/language are so, so important to anti-oppression work.

    Sady and other commenters, I’m curious about your take on the practice of neurotypical people using “retarded” as a synonym for “awesome.” The use I’ve heard is, “That was retardedly good.” As in, very extremely good. I get very anxious playing with slurs that do not describe me, even to change their meaning in a positive way. On the other hand, it really does stop people in their tracks and make them reconsider using the word in a negative way–I’ve seen it happen. Thoughts?

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  19. Crito wrote:

    Sady. Yet again, you make me feel inadequate. Why is it that I cannot successfully and persuasively explain cultural, critical, and language theory to anyone, yet you lay it bare and obvious in post after post after post?

    If you ever stop writing, I will cry.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  20. Thefremen wrote:

    I only started watching lost in the last season. Hurley has some sort of mental condition?

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  21. Bee wrote:

    …your language matters. It makes sense to fight about bad language, because language is one of the most fundamental ways we use our power.

    YES, YES, and a million times YES!

    As you put it so eloquently in your post, Sarah Palin’s danger lies in her (really unnerving, really cynical) appropriation of a structural language that she’s trying to destroy.

    I love this post, and I want to send it to everyone I know — I don’t agree with everything you write, but this post was just right on. Thank you.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink
  22. Catherine wrote:

    Any suggestions for words to use instead of “retarded”–in all contexts? I have a hard time letting go of the word because no other words I know really mean “slowed down by impediments.”

    In the “developmentally disabled” sense, well, I have trouble with both words there. Something retarded is slowed down; something disabled is non-functional. I have a much easier time applying “retarded” to people than “disabled.” The “developmentally” part is often used broadly to mean “mentally” (I guess because of the association with “mentally retarded”?), but I find that misleading and confusing when talking about someone whose problems were caused by brain damage in mid-life. My ear also cringes at the shorthand “DD” that’s prompted by the cumbersomeness of the phrase.

    In other contexts, there’s just sometimes nothing so apt as, “Our progress was retarded by the storm,” or “Their thinking was retarded by their anti-intellectualism.”

    To me, the real problem is that words like “gay” and “retarded,” which can occasionally be properly (by which I mean, directly and aptly) used as insults–as can almost anything–become blanket insults because we have a blanket discomfort with those topics. As someone who loves language, I have a certain respect, almost admiration, for the way words reflect our emotions and prejudices like that.

    But, as someone who wants to help reduce that underlying discomfort and prejudice, I’m willing to give up “retarded.” I really do need some advice on alternative language, though.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  23. Joanna wrote:

    I’m sharing this with my daughter–we’ve had some conversations around these issues, and she has a friend who is absolutely fearless in calling her high school on their language.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  24. James wrote:

    I am surprised at the lack of anyone mentioning that you have made an assumption as to which definition of the word he is choosing to use..

    The root of the word is defined as:
    “to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.”

    Isn’t that completely appropriate to the context of Rahm’s conversation?

    I agree with the overall point, but you overstepped the actual definition of the word to make your point. Using it in the vernacular or slang instead of its root meaning.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  25. I’m with you until here: “when someone casually appropriates the term “rape” to mean anything other than forced sex”

    Rape comes in many forms, and sex isn’t the only one. Forced contact/penetration even in a setting generally thought to be unrelated to “sex” is still rape. Women are raped by doctors all the time – an act that is 100% illegal and constitutes criminal battery. However, it is not in the context of “sex” – it is often in the context of childbirth, where a physician holds a woman down and forces fingers or instruments into her without her consent (informed or otherwise.) It is a HUGE issue in this country. There is also a widely practiced standard in hospitals around the world of performing pelvic exams on anesthetized women. Unconscious women are treated as donated cadavers for medical students to practice on. It’s horrendous, and it’s certainly rape. http://www.theunnecesarean.com/blog/2010/1/29/yes-its-true-med-students-perform-pelvic-exams-on-anesthetiz.html

    Rape involves unconsented touching of genitals, and sex doesn’t always have to be involved. Just something to think about.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  26. A big massive word to all of this. I have these arguments with my lawyer husband, who is massively progressive, but also painfully aware of word usage.

    For me, the lesson was my sister, who had an anoxia brain injury when she was tiny, and is always going to be differently abled (she also has other problems, probably related to the original injury). The lesson was this – the worst insult she and her friends at the “special” school she went to was “you’re so handicapped!”, and “You’re so retarded!”.

    I would push to say that the word no longer has any clinical meaning, and should be dropped, except when spelled with an ‘i’ and used in music (yes, that gets weirdly awkward in music theory classes, as does the phrase “aural pleasure”).

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  27. K wrote:

    @Ashley: Awesomely Good?! Surely retarded in this context is a synonym for insane? I’m not sure how to feel about the use of that word to mean “beyond the ordinary”, but conflating it with developmental disability seems unambiguously offensive.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  28. Sady wrote:

    @James: Oh, for Pete’s sake. Like anyone could reasonably think he was using it in the older, more outmoded sense. “That is fucking retarded” is an intelligible statement, inserted into any conversation with people with whom you disagree. If he’d said “our progress on this matter has been retarded,” you might have a case, but that’s apparently not what happened. No need to play semantics games with it out of misguided defensiveness.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  29. Slightly insulted wrote:

    After reading this and putting a long comment on the facebook wall of the friend who posted the link, I feel that I muse copy+paste my comment here (I don’t have the time to appropriately re-write it, and for that I apologize) the main point I try to make is just that as a male (and a gay one at that) I was kind of offended by Sady’s attitude towards men. I’m sorry if I misinterpreted her words, but that’s kind of the point anyway, right?
    Anyway, here’s what I said:

    While I found this post to be very insightful, and I enjoyed reading it, I still couldn’t help but be slightly offended by her blatant hatred for men and their apparent combined view of women as inferior, unless of course the man is gay, in which case he is conveniently on her side because he has been the victim of the thoughtless use of words.
    Yes, Palin is retarded, and I’m sorry if someone is offended by my saying that, but when I refer to a medical diagnosis, I say”mentally handicapped” or “downs syndrome” because I am aware that the word retarded is frequently used in our society with a negative connotation toward people who do stupid things, but rather than attack the people who are going along with the rest of society, it makes more sense to me to just take the path of least resistance and use medically and politically appropriate terms to refer to people with mental disabilities. Perhaps that is weak of me, and would from her point of view make me a “bitch” to someone (or in her opinion a MAN) who uses that word. I personally only use the word “bitch” to refer to someone, male or female, who is being rude, condescending, hateful, overly angry, or in any other manner hurtful towards me or someone else.
    That does not mean that I think this is a characteristic of women. I also use the words dick ass cunt fucker and souza to refer to these people. That doesn’t mean that I think men, people with asses, or people who have sex display these negative characteristics. These are just words that our society uses to refer to people with those characteristics. I can see how someone might be offended by “cunt” and why I should possibly stop using the term, but honestly I find it more offensive that any person would have the gall to say that it’s not okay to use the word cunt but it is okay to use the word dick.
    I think that while the author had a lot to say about people being offensive, she seems to think that it does not matter if she offends men. It seems that her post was an argument against the use of words that have a history of being associated with women, gays, handicapped people, or any other minorities, and also being associated with any negative meaning. Unless I didn’t notice it, there did not seem to be any mention of how it’s equally not-okay to use words that are derogatory towards men. Words used by radical feminists to put down men and show that women are superior, or words used in every day speech by people who just don’t care enough to change it.
    If she’s going to make her argument, she should make it for everyone, and not just for minorities, because once all the minorities are together fighting against the majority, the majority gets a lot smaller and more defenseless and kinda starts looking like a minority itself.
    I’m sorry she is old enough to have seen people (apparently mostly boys) do horrible things to other people because they were too ignorant to know better, but that’s why we have started educating our youth about treating each other with respect and not being mean to someone because of a mental handicap they can’t help. Yeah, people are still mean to gays, but it’s not as bad as it used to be, which, to me, indicates that it’s changing. Plus mentally handicapped people aren’t considered to be making a sinful decision by the standards of most religions..
    Changing our vocabularies is a great idea to some extent, but really, what difference does it make if our vocabulary changes and our attitude doesn’t?
    I’m sure that’s the point she was making, kinda sorta, and it’s a good one, but it seems to me like her attitude needs a lot of changing as well before she says that other people should change theirs.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  30. James wrote:

    Defensiveness? About what? I agreed with the idea of being careful with your words. I just question that specific case study.

    Wasn’t one of the points of this to think of the words we use, and moreover their appropriateness? In context the word was contextually appropriate. Doesn’t the piece also cover removing the word retarded from the vocabulary? No need, if the word and use are appropriate. In that specific context, it was.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  31. James wrote:

    Basically, the idea that the negative slant behind the slang use of “retarded” is implicitly about physical or mental handicaps, is an assumption and one the shows as much of a lack of thought about words as what you point out. The whole idea of being careful and knowledgeable about what you say is a rabbit hole of sorts; the determination of appropriate use of a word is at times personal and open to interpretation. Your idea of what is right is not always accurate, as you don’t know the root and or subconscious reasoning for the use in others. it IS an assumption to reason what Rahm was thinking when he said that. Did he mean it as slang with the addition of it being and actual retardation of party plans?

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  32. Sady wrote:

    @James: I think the answer is pretty obvious if you look at the quote. Look at the tenses and to what the word “retarded” apparently refers. He was saying that a planned action, which had not yet taken place, WOULD be detrimental. So, if he were referring to the planned future action, there would be no need to refer to it in the past tense: “that plan will fucking retard [our progress]” or “this plan is fucking retarding [our progress]” would be the form of the word he used. He didn’t. He used what is the past tense, which is the form the common pejorative use of the word takes. “That plan is fucking retarded.” Or, “you are fucking retarded.” To make your read work, you have to ignore common sense and most of the ways the sentence would be constructed, and also assume that every person who separately reported the use of the phrase and/or the Wall Street Journal are willfully taking something so far out of context as to change its entire meaning. AND, you have to ignore the fact that Emanuel’s made a public apology, and didn’t say he was using it in that older sense – which he no doubt would have done, if your read were the correct one, rather than apologize for a quote that misrepresented what he said – and has thereby basically admitted that this was the sense of the word he meant to use. Basically, there’s nothing to support your theory, and while I don’t mean to assign motives to you without full knowledge, it reads as defensive because it reads as unwilling to acknowledge some basic facts of what is going on.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  33. smadin wrote:

    Oh please. That’s disingenuous nonsense, James, and I’m sure you know it. Virtually no one uses “retarded” in the literal sense of “slowed” unless they’re making a deliberate attempt to be showy or contrarian in their language use — which is not in character for Emanuel at all — and in particular no one at all calls someone “fuckin’ retarded” if they mean to indicate that the object of their ire is making slow progress.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  34. James wrote:

    Your point on the tenses of his use is taken, and surely right. He was using slang. That still doesn’t mean the word should be removed from our vocabulary, does it?

    As you mentioned in your first response, there was an element of using that as a jumping off point for the broader topic you were addressing, and in my opinion, committing mistakes you seemed to dislike, and to me, are inherent in language, both written and spoken.

    Again, this is more response to the overarching idea of being aware of words and their proper use. I think to actually promote removing a word from your vocabulary, you need to know it is worthless, where this one isn’t. You call it old and outmoded, when it is hardly is. Also, this doesn’t touch upon the root of the slang and where it derived. It’s uses seem broken into verb and noun, The verb can easily apply more closely to the “outmoded” definition than the one referring to the handicapped. Should only one use be removed?

    I could care less about who said it or what have you. I did find it interesting and telling, more to your overall point than anything, that in a monologue about words, their uses, and their appropriateness, there were a few assumptions throughout that illustrated the very behavior you are writing against; the aforementioned Rape being one, the use and root of the slang “retarded” being another…

    Don’t take it for defensive, as I have no dog in the fight. If anything, I found this all illuminating and thought provoking, hence my involvement.

    Thanks for responding.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  35. James wrote:

    @smadin
    Many people use retarded in it’s ROOT definition still. That you don’t doesn’t imply others who do are being showy. The word hasn’t been deprecated, has it?

    BTW, I checked out your blog and bookmarked it. It looks like you have a lot to say!

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  36. Eva wrote:

    Thanks for this. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with having problems with “language games” but still really feeling strongly that words have power and that I need to use them carefully. Your point about tying words to actual work to change underlying structures clarified things for me so brilliantly. Thanks.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  37. Jeremiah wrote:

    Great essay. I avoided the use of “retarded” for many years. Now I have three “disabled” children and the way people use “disabled” sometimes really pisses me off … there’s a false tone suggesting that they actually care … as they try to tip-toe around my messy family. For these folks, I sometimes say something like, “My son … he’s retarded, and …”. They squirm at my “language”, but mostly they’re just self-righteously happy to have neurotypical children.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  38. Rob wrote:

    I find it sad that you make many good points about language and it’s use, but felt the need to shroud it heavily in “Why I hate Sarah Palin.”

    Isn’t it possible for an obviously intelligent liberal to make a statement on how he or she feels about something in society without picking out a popular member of the conserative party and making a large part of that statement how that person is scum?

    Saying that Sarah Palin is using language to win votes/popularity/whatever isn’t exactly news. Even semi-intelligent politicians have been doing that forever. That’s nothing new.

    While I do beleive your intent was to mmake a statement about language and hopefully have some effect on it’s use, I feel that this blog comes off as using the subject of language as an excuse to tear down Sarah Palin with a sprinking of promoting a national healthcare system thrown in.

    I’m not saying that you can’t like or hate a politician, his/her agenda or party. I just think that, as well written as this is, it would have been 10 times more powerful if it wasn’t so obviously an anti-Palin blog. You talk about the power of language and words. Imagine making your same point, from a politically neutral perspective.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 5:17 am | Permalink
  39. Sady, this is a phenomenal post.

    It’s a shame you have some people playing Derailing for Dummies, but it doesn’t take long to bring out haters.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  40. Sady wrote:

    @Rob: I can’t, really, because I think the politics are integral to the argument. The reason I object to Sarah Palin’s statement is that I believe it to be duplicitous; the reason I believe it to be duplicitous is her politics. And language debates are themselves political. For example, other words I’m trying to cut out of my vocabulary right now – writing and speaking – are “like” as an all-purpose place-holder, “gross,” “fucking” as an all-purpose intensifier because I use it constantly, and “so” as a means of opening a statement. Also I abuse the colon, which is a fine punctuation mark, and I think it will benefit me immensely if I can manage to use something else to denote take-a-full-stop-without-the-sentence-ending, which is something we have in speech, pausing for a second to give what we have to say an added weight or for comic timing, but which I’m struggling to find another equivalent for in writing. I basically think I need to just write a damn post without the “which: something” construction. But none of those things are interesting enough to hang a statement on, because they don’t have much impact on the world around me, other than making me sound kind of bad. Nobody is going to stir up controversy over Rahm Emanuel saying “gross” too much, you know? I could write something about language debate and language usage and so on and so forth that DIDN’T hang on this exchange, but it would lack a concrete example of someone using the, I guess, “politically correct” language without the benefit of being correct politically, and we’d lose the chance to talk about what that means.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  41. Mary wrote:

    What Sweet Machine said, re: Derailing for Dummies. Most awesome post.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 6:35 am | Permalink
  42. Ashley wrote:

    @Ashley: Awesomely Good?! Surely retarded in this context is a synonym for insane? I’m not sure how to feel about the use of that word to mean “beyond the ordinary”.

    K–No, I actually was able to speak to the person who began this use in a subculture of mine that has been slowly picking it up as a group. It was an intentional move to reclaim the word. The intended synonym is “awesome.” Another use would be “that was retarded” to indicate that something was great.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  43. Dawn. wrote:

    Sady, you are ten tons of analytical bad ass. Thank you for writing about this and for always keeping it interesting.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  44. whatsername wrote:

    Seriously, this is something I need to integrate into my brain and really remember. “Points” are all too easy and seductive.

    Brilliant work, Sady. Really. :)

    Monday, February 8, 2010 at 2:14 am | Permalink
  45. Rob wrote:

    *laughs* Isn’t labeling anyone who disagrees with you as a “hater” simply derailing? You aren’t even attemping to point out how you disagree. You simply label them a hater and going on knowing that you simply cannot be wrong.

    In regards to anyone who thinks that anyone who disagrees with Sady’s blog in any way must be a moron/hater/whatever I submit this to you; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/04/AR2010020403698_pf.html

    For those who won’t follow the link, I submit these two quotes;
    “Perhaps the most important conservative insight being depreciated is the durable warning from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend.”
    “Even liberals should think twice about the prospect of decisions on innovative surgeries, light bulbs and carbon quotas being directed by legislators grandstanding for the cameras. Of course, thinking twice would be easier if more of them were listening to conservatives at all.”

    Personally, I agree with much of what Sady has said about language and it’s use. I simply disagreed with turning it into a political anti-Palin message. I’m possitive that if someone wanted to spend the time you’d find numerous examples of politicians on both side of the fence and plenty of independents that use language that disagrees with what some people feels their politics show.

    I beleive that a world the way the present liberal party seems to want would be a great place…if it were possible to maintain in reality. There will -always- be someone out there who will want to change it. No society of more then oh… a few dozen people could ever maintain “eutopia” because everyone has a different view of what eutopia is.

    I beleive that we must do what we can to make our world the best it can be in reality. That being a combination of many views, Liberal and Conserative, with respectful debate on how things should or need to be changed with the times.

    Monday, February 8, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  46. In my ideal world, a person with mental disabilities would not be immediately be assumed to have a lower quality of life or be devalued as an individual in society. This person would just be different, in the same way that shy people differ from outgoing ones. In other words, the value judgment that I think is currently intrinsically married to the concept of people with disabilities would be eliminated.

    If you agree that this would be an ideal, then the question becomes how best to bring it about. Obviously, using the word retarded when you really mean bad, low-quality, inferior, or lesser in any way would be counter-productive. But what if you use the word retarded to mean something that is stupid, or “less intelligent than average”? I think the problem with saying that people should not use the word retarded if they mean ‘stupid’ is that it implies (whether intentional or not) that being less intelligent than average is inherently bad. Taking for granted here that the word retarded has been co-opted from its original meaning of slow growth to be a catch-all for people with mental disabilities, if we weren’t making this value judgment, then why would calling something retarded, if you mean stupid, be wrong? Wouldn’t it just be the case that some things are less intelligent, on average, than other things, and to state this would be a matter of fact, like pointing out the speaker’s tie was green?

    This is a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around, because there are a lot of people whose value systems are built around the concept that intelligence is a fundamental good and stupidity is its opposite. I’m not sure if this is something that could ever change, but I do think that considering the assumptions that are inherent in what makes you uncomfortable is important. If you don’t like people saying something or someone is retarded, why don’t you? What exactly is it about the word that makes you uncomfortable? Is it the concept of people with mental disabilities in general?

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  47. Karen ^..^ wrote:

    I have a new favorite blog. Absolutely beautifully written.

    I’m guilty of using that word myself, but to me it is meant in a way that means this:

    to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.
    –verb (used without object)
    2. to be delayed.
    –noun
    3. a slowing down, diminution, or hindrance, as in a machine.

    NOT THIS…
    4. Slang: Disparaging.
    a. a mentally retarded person.
    b. a person who is stupid, obtuse, or ineffective in some way: a hopeless social retard.

    As you can see, in the first few definitions, the dictionary.com reference clearly defines Sarah Palin’s actions as retarded, in trying to IMPEDE the PROGRESS of the health care reform that might benefit other mentally disabled people.

    However… I am trying to remove it from my vocabulary as well, as the meaning has become quite diluted over the years, from the second meaning.

    I remember my foster sister calling her biological father and my foster father, “retarded”. I was incensed, and yelled at her to not say such a thing about him.

    She opened the dictionary and showed me the literal definition of the word. I was astonished.

    so… the word retarded, as Sarah Palin took exception to, is actually a pejorative in and of itself, as the original definition means “slow to progress” or “to impede progress”. Noun or verb, same concept.

    She really should buy a dictionary before she gets on Facebook going off half cocked, because truly, the fact that she got so righteously indignant is actually an insult to her infant son.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Permalink
  48. Matt wrote:

    This was well thought-out and well-delivered, and I hope people continue to find it.

    My adopted sister suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, fetal malnourishment, and probably some pre-natal drug use. Her IQ is in the 40s, she’s bipolar, and it takes about seven different medications to keep her emotions level. It’s hard to think about how bewildering and frustrating and painful her life must be. She is a fundamentally broken person, and it breaks my heart to know that there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do to make it better for her.

    So on a personal level, I really don’t like that Rahm Emanuel used the word “retarded” that way, and I really don’t like that it’s taken over the news the way it has. My sister knows that the “retarded” is a cruel and ugly word, and somewhere in the back of her head, she knows that applies accurately to her. I don’t like that she has to think about it every time the news comes on.

    Here’s the thing, though: there’s really no substitute for the word “retard”. There is no other word that means “deeply, extremely, permanently stupid”, and with the same connotation. Not even close. Some things really are just fucking retarded, and the idea that there’s an ENTIRE CLASS OF SITUATIONS that we’re not allowed to describe because my sister might overhear you just seems wrong.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  49. anti_supernaturalist wrote:

    ** rapid limitation of accepted meaning of ‘gay’

    ‘Gay’ about 60 years ago meant “bright” or “splashy” with an overtone of irreverence or outrageousness.

    In 1952, ‘gay’ appeared with sexual limitation in a slang dictionary with the meaning “australian: a male/female prostitute — a gay boy, gay girl.”

    After 1969 and the great outing of homosexual culture in NYC, ‘gay’ rapidly came to mean only “male homosexual”.

    It is easy to see how an irreverent flashiness in dress and behavior became applied to homosexuality only.

    It did not take hundreds of years for linguistic usage to alter, but a mere span of fewer than 20 years.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

10 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Not a Real Post « Fugitivus on Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    [...] for whom we have the Sady-love, has made the blog post that will henceforth be printed in the dictionary under [...]

  2. uberVU - social comments on Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 2:00 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by internetreading: Inappropriate Language: Some Notes on Words and Context: http://bit.ly/bsohsQ...

  3. links for 2010-02-04 « Embololalia on Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 11:05 am

    [...] Tiger Beatdown – Inappropriate Language: Some Notes on Words and Context There is no purpose, behind her Facebook post and her call-out of Emanuel, beyond continuing a program of obstructing a Democratic agenda and the current President. It’s precisely as duplicitous as the cries of “sexism” in the right during the primaries. Is there sexism in the Democratic Party, and in the treatment of Sarah Palin? Fuck yes, there is. Was Rahm’s use of the term ableist? Is there ableism in the left? Was the response to the ableism handled poorly? Fuck yes, to every single one of those questions. But pointing that out when you know that your own party and/or political agenda isn’t going to prioritize social welfare programs which would help the disabled, when they’re trying to make universal access to healthcare impossible, when you don’t have a compassionate stance on the issues of unemployment and poverty to which disability is inexorably linked… is just about the most disgusting corruption of these legitimate issues that I can imagine. (tags: sarahpalin rahmemanuel ability learningdisability republicans usa class intersectionality slurs lgbt) [...]

  4. [...] Beatdown has a long, interesting, rather esoteric piece on Rahm Emanuel, Sarah Palin, and the use of the word “retarded,” to which [...]

  5. Most Tweeted Articles by Feminist Experts on Friday, February 5, 2010 at 3:24 am

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  6. [...] word “retard” is certainly inappropriate. Sarah Palin trying to get him fired over it? Not so. [Tiger [...]

  7. [...] of Sarah Palin (and Rush Limbaugh). I urge you to read that, and to read the full text of the TigerBeatdown^ post by Sady that she [...]

  8. Links « Stuff on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 2:01 am

    [...] Inappropriate Language: Some Notes on Words and Context. [...]

  9. Words and Meaning « Shadow Boxing on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    [...] just participating in more partisan crap.  For a MUCH better discussion of this situation, read Sady’s post at Tiger Beatdown, and Sweet Machine’s post at Shapely Prose.   I’m not going to get [...]

  10. [...] still have resonance. And as Sady Doyle so elegantly explains in her essay on offensive language, context matters: When someone uses “gay” to mean “gross and weird,” or when someone describes a person as [...]