I have a good friend who intentionally pushes people's buttons to get a rise out of them. Not all the time—he has a sense of decorum for occasions like funerals. Almost every time I see him, he greets me with some version of the following: “Hey, I hope you didn't trip over anything, since you're blind!” No, not exactly Carlin, but with the goofy grin he wears with his delivery, it's actually pretty hilarious. Not to mention he's right.
Okay, not completely. Mine's called “achromatopsia nystagmus.” I'm very near-sighted, colorblind, extremely light-sensitive, and have little depth perception. The worst of it is I often get headaches after day-long exposure to what normies consider regular, inside office lighting. The best I can see is in the dark.
Now that I've established my gimp credentials, let's move on to a recently intensifying socio-linguistic phenomenon: Things You Can't Say. Nowadays, you can't throw a rock on the Internet without hitting at least a dozen sites that proclaim Encyclopedia Britannica-length lists of TYCS and the reasons why. I get it. People want to be sensitive to each other's emotional needs and not intentionally, or even accidentally, trample on those needs. Sometimes, though, it goes too far.
Following is a list of legitimately offensive and straight-up silly button-pushers so we can finally put an end to the ableist-language question. For full context, I've also provided etymologies (from etymonline.com) so you know where these came from and might have a clearer picture of how they ended up where they are today.
1912, from German “Autismus,” coined 1912 by Swiss psychiatrist Paul Bleuler (1857-1939) from combining form of Greek “autos-” "self" + “-ismos” suffix of action or of state. The notion is of "morbid self-absorption."
The argument can be made that “autistic” isn't so much ableist as it is both popularly and linguistically misunderstood. No expert myself, I've understood from members of the community that the phenomenon bears a wide range of symptoms, intensity, and, thus, day-to-day functionality. In terms of the question of ableism, the word is hardly used outside its native context. One never hears “That's so autistic,” or equivalents. Interestingly, “autism” is one of the few words on this list that derived from a somewhat pejorative sense, but arrived at what most would consider a sympathetic one.
Old English blind "blind," also "dark, enveloped in darkness, obscure; unintelligent, lacking mental perception," probably from Proto-Germanic *blinda- "blind" (source also of Dutch and German “blind,” Old Norse “blindr,” Gothic “blinds” "blind"), perhaps, via notion of "to make cloudy, deceive," from an extended Germanic form of the PIE root *bhel- "to shine, flash, burn.” Compare Lithuanian “blendzas” "blind," “blesti” "to become dark." The original sense would be not "sightless," but rather "confused," which perhaps underlies such phrases as “blind alley” (Chaucer's “lanes blynde”), which is older than the sense of "closed at one end" (1610s).
In some ways, “blind” is the father of ableist terms. There's the base meaning of “one who can't see,” but the word has a rich, extended, metaphoric life in which it can be a stand-in for “ignorance,” “stubbornness,” or “lost.” It's only been in the last few years of rising TYCS that the more colorful uses of “blind” have been sacrificed in the name of sensitivity. But that rise in social conscience completely misses the point of metaphoric language. The average blind person knows that when one speaks of “being blind to a situation,” one isn't literally referring to “blindness” as a condition nor any particular blind person. To assume otherwise is downright...
1570s, "diseased, sickly," from “craze” + “-y.” Meaning "full of cracks or flaws" is from 1580s; that of "of unsound mind, or behaving as so" is from 1610s. Jazz slang sense "cool, exciting" attested by 1927. “To drive (someone) crazy” is attested by 1873. Phrase “crazy like a fox” recorded from 1935. Crazy Horse, Teton Lakhota (Siouan) war leader (d.1877) translates “thašuka witko,” literally "his horse is crazy."
“Crazy” has gone through a crazy number of changes. The word is a perfect example of how the modern speaker plants their proverbial definition-rock in the ever-flowing language-river and declares that the “unsound mind” definition not only is the only one, but that it's also compulsory to include it as a TYCS. The problem with this thinking is, as illustrated in the “crazy” etymology, the word has not only gone through multiple permutations, but in its modern context, it also has myriad applications. In the above paragraph alone, I used it as an emphatic to describe its changes. I feel safe in betting that with that usage, no one assumed I was describing a person of “unsound mind.”
But let's consider an “unsound mind.” Is it an insult to observe reality and call it what it is? Harkening back to “blind,” if someone were to say to me “He was blind to the situation,” I would consider that a perfectly reasonable way to describe a person who was unaware of a particular aspect of a situation. So, too, if one were to tell me that aliens had told them that the world will end in two days, calling such a prediction “unsound” would be an apt description.
Old English “crypel,” related to “cryppan” "to crook, bend," from Proto-Germanic *krupilaz (source also of Old Frisian “kreppel,” Middle Dutch “cropel,” German “krüppel,” Old Norse “kryppill”). Possibly also related to Old English “creopan” "to creep" (“creopere,” literally "creeper," was another Old English word for "crippled person").
“Cripple” presents an odd situation. In polite conversation, it's normally unacceptable to refer to someone as a “cripple” (even if they are one), but it's perfectly natural to say something like, “The torpedo crippled the submarine.” Both meanings are equal. With this dichotomy, there's a bit of an acceptability battle going on. If one can't say “cripple” referring to the person, should one say “crippled” referring to the condition? But if one can say “crippled” referring to the condition, can't one say, “cripple” referring to the person? The good news is those in the crippled community are doing a bit of a take-back as the LGBT community has done with a number of its formerly pejorative words. Until the situation is fully resolved, however, it's best to assume that “crippled” is left to the metaphors.
A euphemism for “disabled” originating in the 1990s, which, fortunately, gained little traction since then, but which has reared its ugly head in recent years. “Differently abled” is the epitome of what I loathe about the effects of TYCS. The goal, to construe ability as more of a spectrum than a binary, renders this expression meaningless, always necessitating further clarity; the opposite of what a word or expression should do. The hard fact of a disability is that for the disabled person, that thing which the disability describes is something they can't do. Thus, to label it as merely a “different ability” is not only to deny reality, but also often to patronize the disabled person about their disability.
Yet, because some circles within the various disabled communities seem to desire more focus on what they can do rather than what they can't (often ignoring the reality of their disabilities in the process), “differently abled” is gaining some ground.
Feel free to use it, but be ready for quizzical stares.
Ultimately derived from Latin “habere” “to have, to hold” with the extended sense of “holding” comes “utility,” and thus “ability.”
“Disabled” is almost as sensitive a subject as “cripple,” though for different reasons. The word tends to carry some very harsh tones. If one describes another as “disabled,” the connotation tends to lean towards “complete inability,” as in “He used to work for the Forest Service, but now he's disabled.” It doesn't help that in the laws of several countries, it's possible to be “on disability,” or receive money from the government because you can't work. That context carries with it a whole host of social stigmas. In general, though, it's perfectly polite to refer to someone as “disabled,” just that it's not always clear what disability that person has or if it's even okay to probe further.
Old English dumb "silent, unable to speak," from PIE *dheubh- "confusion, stupefaction, dizziness," from root *dheu- (1) "dust, mist, vapor, smoke," and related notions of "defective perception or wits."
The Old English, Old Saxon “dumb,” Gothic “dumbs,” and Old Norse “dumbr” forms of the word meant only "mute, speechless;" in Old High German “thumb” it meant both this and "stupid," and in Modern German this latter became the only sense. Meaning "foolish, ignorant" was occasionally in Middle English, but modern use (1823) comes from influence of German “dumm.”
Applied to silent contrivances, hence “dumbwaiter.” As a verb, in late Old English, "to become mute;" c. 1600, "to make mute." “To dumb (something) down” is from 1933.
I understand why the linguistically sensitive don't particularly like this word. It carries a very long history of almost entirely negative connotation. One can imagine an ancient German father yelling at his son something about being “thumb.” That said, though, the word has significantly calmed, especially in the last 20 years. In fact, I'd argue that were it not for the grandfathered expression “deaf and dumb,” most people wouldn't even be aware of “dumb”'s earlier definitions. The word resides in the same wheelhouse as “cripple.” It's reasonable to explain an action as “dumb,” meaning there was a preferable option available that should've been taken. Regarding people, though, there does seem to be a “cripple”-like battle going on. Unlike, “cripple,” though, you can still say it.
1925, "a crippled leg," also "a crippled person" (1929), perhaps by association with “limp,” or a corruption of “gammy.”
I love this word. I've attempted to make it the “f-bomb” of the LGBT community or “n-bomb” of the African-American community for the disabled community. I also find it a particularly salacious replacement for “disabled.” It's shorter, bouncier, more colorful, and makes normies cringe. Unfortunately, it hasn't caught on as well as other words, so despite any power I might want it to wield, most times, it carries mere confusion. Despite this, only a gimp can call a gimp a gimp.
Just like “differently abled” before it, this is an abysmal word that rings of diversity assemblies of my teen years in which we gimps were paraded before the normies for their awareness and our inclusion. Thankfully, this word never really caught on outside of our collective parents and the academics who wanted to “make a difference.”
1650s, from “hand in cap,” a game whereby two bettors would engage a neutral umpire to determine the odds in an unequal contest. The bettors would put their hands holding forfeit money into a hat or cap. The umpire would announce the odds and the bettors would withdraw their hands -- hands full meaning that they accepted the odds and the bet was on, hands empty meaning they did not accept the bet and were willing to forfeit the money. If one forfeited, then the money went to the other. If both agreed either on forfeiting or going ahead with the wager, then the umpire kept the money as payment. The custom, though not the name, is attested from 14c. ("Piers Plowman").
Reference to horse racing is 1754 (Handy-Cap Match), where the umpire decrees the superior horse should carry extra weight as a "handicap;" this led to sense of "encumbrance, disability" first recorded 1890. The main modern sense, "a mental or physical disability," is the last to develop, early 20c.
This word is the most ironic in the list in that its origins gave a sense of equalizing for the disadvantaged, but now it's just another euphemism for “disabled.” The funny thing, too, is that with all its modern pejorative flavor, it's almost completely fallen out of use, having been relegated to parking spots and bathroom stalls. While I admit I was never a fan of the word (mostly I just didn't like how it sounded), the only reaction I suspect it'd receive if used in polite company would be that of confusion, as if the speaker had just called a good thing “groovy.”
Early 14c., "person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning;" also in Middle English "simple man, uneducated person, layman" (late 14c.), from Old French idiote "uneducated or ignorant person" (12c.), from Latin “idiota” "ordinary person, layman; outsider," in Late Latin "uneducated or ignorant person," from Greek “idiotes” "layman, person lacking professional skill" (opposed to writer, soldier, skilled workman), literally "private person" (as opposed to one taking part in public affairs), used patronizingly for "ignorant person," from “idios” "one's own.”
In plural, the Greek word could mean "one's own countrymen." In old English law, one who has been without reasoning or understanding from birth, as distinguished from a “lunatic,” who became that way. “Idiot box” "television set" is from 1959; “idiot light” "dashboard warning signal" is attested from 1961. “Idiot savant” attested by 1870.
What a crazy etymology! The fact is that even with this word's old use as half of “idiot savant,” it's so widely accepted in the culture that I predict it will never fully fall out of use, even from TYCS pressures.
1550s, of persons, "mentally damaged," from Latin “insanus” "mad, insane, of unsound mind; outrageous, excessive, extravagant," from “in-” "not" + “sanus” "well, healthy, sane.” In reference to actions, "irrational, evidencing madness," from 1842 in English. The noun meaning "insane person" is attested from 1786. For the notion of insanity as sickness, compare “lunatic;” and Italian “pazzo” "insane," originally a euphemism, from Latin “patiens” "suffering." German “verrückt,” literally past participle of “verrücken” "to displace," "applied to the brain as to a clock that is 'out of order' " [Buck].
Much like “dumb,” it's interesting how this word didn't start out particularly negative, but through the centuries, it took on increasingly pejorative tones. Just like “dumb,” “insane”'s modern usage, as applied to situations, actions, and the like, can be perfectly useful. Jumping off a building with the expectation to fly is an insane thing to do. Yet, in recent years, with growing sensitivity towards the neurodivergent (who aren't technically insane anyway), the word is looked down upon. I suspect, however, that even with modern sensitivity efforts, the casual usage referring to people won't ever fully disappear. Use it and to an insane degree.
Old English lama "crippled, lame; paralytic, weak," from Proto-Germanic *lamon "weak-limbed" (source also of Old Norse “lami” "lame, maimed," Dutch and Old Frisian “lam,” German “lahm” "lame"), literally "broken," from PIE root *lem- "to break; broken," with derivatives meaning "crippled" (source also of Old Church Slavonic “lomiti” "to break," Lithuanian “luomas” "lame").
In Middle English especially "crippled in the feet," but also "crippled in the hands; disabled by disease; maimed." Figurative sense of "imperfect" is from late 14c. Sense of "socially awkward" is attested from 1942. Noun meaning "crippled persons collectively" is in late Old English. “To come by the lame post” (17c.-18c.) was an old colloquialism in reference to tardy mails or news out-of-date.
What's interesting about “lame,” and a testament to my early education, is that I wasn't even aware of its earlier definition referring to the crippled until probably later grade school. The more pervasive, and increasingly offensive, definition of socially awkward was what I understood. That's a fascinating aspect of linguistics, that the definition one learns first, correct or not, is the one that “feels right.” Consequently, hearing the word in the sense of the crippled sounds extremely dated to me. Which is why I'm baffled by its increasing unacceptability in speech as I'd wager most people, especially those born in the last 20 years, probably never heard the earlier usages of the word. Its negative connotation is increasing, however, and it's unclear whether it will be wholly ejected from casual speech. Until that happens, though, whatever's uncool is still lame!
This word has gotten a bad rap through mass media. Every time I hear it, I think of British actors frothing about “Chi-AN-ti.” And Hitchcock did it no favors with his taxidermy romp. As such, I can understand how the modern neurodivergent might not appreciate the word's connotations and stereotypes. Words are what we make them, though, and as long as audiences enjoy screaming at transvestites cutting down damsels in showers, no amount of linguistic sensitivity will quell this word.
Late 15c., "make slow or slower," from French “retarder” "restrain, hold (someone) back, keep (someone from doing something); come to a stop" (13c.) or directly from Latin “retardare” "make slow, delay, keep back, hinder."
The noun is recorded from 1788 in the sense "retardation, delay;" from 1970 in offensive meaning "retarded person," originally American English, with accent on first syllable. Other words used for "one who is mentally retarded" include “retardate” (1956), “retardee” (1971).
The granddaddy of them all. And truly the only cut-and-dry word on the list. While from its etymology, the word was once a gentle euphemism for earlier words, the fact is humans like to insult each other and so nothing could stop its ultimate arrival at complete unacceptability. Even in my skepticism of TYCS, I've worked to cut the word from my regular usage.
1753, from Latin “spasticus,” from Greek “spastikos” "afflicted with spasms," literally "drawing, pulling, stretching," from “span” "draw up.” The noun meaning "a person affected with spastic paralysis" is attested from 1896, used insultingly by 1960s
Much like “cripple,” what I find so frustrating about this word is that it's completely accurate. And it speaks to normies' dislike of directly addressing both the gimp and his gimpiness. Why accurately name a person's trait when we can come up with any number of euphemisms that don't really address the issue, and definitely not clearly? Alas, accuracy is often the most overlooked goal in the usage of many words. While “spaz” may only be borderline offensive in the US, I hear that it's beyond the pale in England.
c. 1200, "better than ordinary," from Old French “special,” “especial” "special, particular, unusual" (12c., Modern French “spécial”) and directly from Latin “specialis” "individual, particular" (source also of Spanish “especial,” Italian “speziale”), from “species” "appearance, kind, sort."
Meaning "marked off from others by some distinguishing quality" is recorded from c. 1300; that of "limited as to function, operation, or purpose" is from 14c. “Special effects” first attested 1951. “Special interests” in U.S. political sense is from 1910. “Special pleading” first recorded 1680s, a term that had a sound legal meaning once but now is used generally and imprecisely. “Special education” in reference to those whose learning is impeded by some mental or physical handicap is from 1972.
The only word I loathe more then “differently abled.” With its early 1970s implications of mental handicaps, and an attempt to mask them with “everyone gets a trophy” praise, the word developed a negative connotation arguably even worse than its cousin “retarded.” Not only did everyone know what it really meant, but we also knew it was patronizing in tone. Then, of course, everyone at a slight disadvantage for any reason became “special” and the entire euphemistic intention was defeated.
While the term is acceptable, I avoid the word. But for “cripple,” “retarded,” and “special,” say what you like, be mindful of context, and when in doubt, ask a gimp.