Language Corner

How some words don’t stand the test of time

May 13, 2019

“As language and society evolve, words that were once considered merely slang sometimes take on an offensive odor,” we wrote more than seven years ago. We were referring then to the kinds of ethnic and racial terms that may have always been offensive but made their way into common language, like “squaw” and “paddy wagon.” Only later were their offensive natures broadly acknowledged.

We’ve also touched on the sensitivity of dealing with illness and disability, preferring terms like “uses a wheelchair” to “confined to a wheelchair,” or “has cancer” instead of “suffers from cancer.”

ICYMI: How to use the terms ‘karat’ and ‘carat’ correctly

The increasing sensitivity to words denoting a physical or mental disability is playing out in many places, not all of them expected. A case in point: Late last year, Major League Baseball announced that it was renaming its “disabled list” to the “injured list.” As an ESPN article said, quoting a spokesman, “The principal concern is that using the term ‘disabled’ for players who are injured supports the misconception that people with disabilities are injured and therefore are not able to participate or compete in sports.”

The change, the article said, “was made at the suggestion of advocacy groups for the disabled, including the Link 20 Network.” The network, part of the Ruderman Family Foundation, bills itself as a social network of activists with and without disabilities.

The terms “abled,” “ableist,” and “ableism” are sometimes used for people without disabilities, but those words are usually used negatively, as in this definition of “ableism” from an affinity website: “The practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities.” (While “abled” traces to military terminology in 1946, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ableist” and “ableism” trace only to 1981, both in the now-defunct feminist publication Off Our Backs.)

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Most of the time, slights are not intentional, which doesn’t make them any less offensive to some people. The Twitter hashtag “AbledsAreWeird” offers a range of actions, words, and treatments that have been called out.

Everyday terminology can insult a group of people, even unintentionally. Calling someone a “schizoid,” and expressions like “that’s crazy” and “the last Avengers movie was insane” can be considered offensive to people with mental disabilities. Saying someone is a “basketball junkie” diminishes the seriousness of addiction.

What about saying “that movie was really lame”? A limping horse can be called “lame,” in the sense that it has an injury. But because “lame” can also mean “weak,” “inferior,” or “contemptible,” among Merriam-Webster’s definitions, it’s best avoided in reference to a person or their actions.

An excellent source for disability terminology is the style guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism, which gives background, Associated Press style guidelines, and advice for its entries.

As always, journalists should think before mentioning someone’s disability (or age, sexual orientation, religion, sex, ethnicity…) and decide how relevant it is to that story in that context. Singling out one person in a crowd of a thousand who was in a wheelchair, or mentioning that four of the graduating seniors had autism, may have no purpose other than to, well, single them out. While journalism often puts spotlights on people, be sure you know what’s relevant and inoffensive, to the subjects and the audience.

ICYMI: Dictionaries recently added more than 1,500 words. Here are some new entries.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.