Again with the offensive words.

Since blog comments had not been developed during the paleolithic period, my cro-magnon friend continues to respond via email.  He & his neanderthal colleague insist I come down one way or the other on the use of the word “idiot.”

If I’m candid, I have to admit I’m on the fence.  The history of “idiot” is just as noxious as that of “retard” but history does not supply the full answer.  It also matters how the word is meant and heard in contemporary speech.  I can say that when I hear the word “retard” I hear an effort to disparage the target by a comparison to a cognitively disabled person; when I hear “idiot” I interpret it to mean simply “stupid.”

So I would like to hear more from others — in the comments if you’re a modern human, email if cro-magnon — what you think when you say or hear the word “idiot.”

I was trying to think of other examples of words that have lost their true meaning as epithets, and are in general use without reference to an earlier offensive meaning.  It’s easy to think of examples in the opposite direction:  it doesn’t make the word “bitch” innocuous that its dictionary definition is “female dog.”  I’ve heard it’s a false etymology that has rendered the word “handicap” unacceptable.  It was thought to derive from a reference to begging — “cap in hand” or “hand in cap” — but in fact goes back to betting conventions involving the announcement of odds.  Its real meaning, in other words, is the one at the racetrack.  While I suppose it is mildly offensive to for a disability to be analogized to odds in betting, the ADA definition is “substantially impaired in a major life activity,” which seems much more explicitly harsh than being burdened with longer odds.   Or maybe I’m just remembering fondly our last vacation in Vegas.

One of the reasons I would like to hear from other folks is that I have recently been called on a couple of words that I now try not to use but have not gotten to the point of busting others’ asses for using (as I generally do with “retard”).  Among these are “crazy” and its synonyms and “lame.”  All of these disparage by comparison to people with disabilities, and there’s just no way to spin that comparison that makes it OK.  Seems to me disrespectful to use a group characteristic as an insult.   That is, until “Republican” is seen for the insult it truly is!

10 thoughts on “Again with the offensive words.

  1. Neanderthal

    Amy — I don’t think you are really on the fence; I think you are being diplomatic to cro-magnon. Stop it. I have taken a little time to research whether anyone finds the use of the epithet offensive. I have found none. I think that until some third party (i.e., other than the actual target of the epithet) actually believes that the use of the word “idiot” demeans some group or person (in this instance, the cognitively impaired), we shouldn’t force it to do so. In other words, I don’t think anyone is actually offended by the term, and it doesn’t serve any useful purpose to start a campaign that they should be. I agree with you — “idiot” means “stupid” in present day context. It’s probably uncouth, but should not be politically incorrect.


  2. Eva

    There is nothing wrong with the word idiot — it’s a great word. Once you have the slightest bit of success with a blog, you’ll receive any array of comments from people who disagree with you. Consider yourself on the right track when someone questions your opinions; it means you’re hitting home. 🙂


  3. Susan

    Amy, we had this discussion a couple of years ago–it started with a cartoon that used the words “moron” and George W. Bush. The collective agreement was that “idiot” still holds disablist intent and should be avoided. Ditto for “lame,” which a lot of people don’t agree with. Here’s a snippet of the ensuing email dialogue about ‘moron’ and ‘idiot.’

    —–First Original Message—–

    Subject: Moron

    I thought about your comment all afternoon and into the evening. I know that there is a definition of moron that has nothing to do with disability and looked it up. This is what I found. The second definition is the one that is relevant to the cartoon. I have never thought of moron as a feeble minded person although it is clear that that is one of the definitions.

    ☆ mo·ron (môr′än′, mōr′-)
    a retarded person mentally equal to a child between eight and twelve years old: an obsolescent term
    a very foolish or stupid person
    Etymology: arbitrary use (by H. H. Goddard, 1866-1957, U.S. psychologist) of Gr mōron, neut. of mōros, foolish, akin to Sans mūrá-, stupid
    moron Related Forms
    mo·ron′ic (mô rän′ik) adjective mo·ron′i·cally adverb mo·ron′·ity noun or mo′·ron·ism′
    moron Synonyms

    feeble-minded person, mentally handicapped person, retardate, imbecile, idiot*, simpleton*, natural*, goose*, addlepate*, dullard*, dunce*, gawk*, blockhead*, mental defective, cretin*, tomfool*, dunce*, dunderhead*, lunkhead*, muttonhead*, numskull*, dimwit*, retard*, halfwit*, boob*, dingbat*, saphead*, mutt*, loony*; see also f ool 1.
    Antonyms philosopher*, sage*, scientist.

    —–Second Original Message – Response —–

    Subject: Re: Moron

    The second definition comes from the first. It is a derogatory term because it relates to a person with mental retardation. Just like when a foolish and stupid person is called “retard”. That is why people who do have mental retardation or intellectual disabilities don’t like the term as applied to them or others. Look at the nouns that are synonyms and the derogatory association becomes clear…i.e. inbecile, idiot, dunce, blockhead, etc..


  4. Cro-Magnon

    This is remniscent of conversations held years ago with southern rednecks (Neanderthals) who routinely used the “n” word and defended by saying “I don’t mean nuthin’ by it. It’s just an expression. Everyone uses it.” The reason “idiot” “moron” and “imbecile” fell into disuse was because they labeled people who “were mentally retarded” with one of those three classifications. They became routinely used as insults as sub-species of “mental retardation.” The fact that they have worked their way into the lexicon and are routinely used doesn’t change their derivation. When hurled as an insult you are essentially calling the targeted person developmentally disabled to whatever degree the word refers. I agree with Susan. Your Neanderthal friend sounds rather brutish and none too bright. Too much time on the prison rock pile, not enough time in the library I suspect. Anyway, I do agree with him that you are probably not really “on the fence.” As such, you need to take a position on all of this on way or the other or you’ll lose your license to blog. All bloggers are required by the Rules of Blogocity to strongly stake a position and defend it, so have at it. Your audience awaits your verdict “with bad breath” as your Neanderthal friend would say.


  5. Neanderthal

    Don’t fall for it, Amy. Cro-magnons are tricky, but deal mainly in sophistry (this is a little known and never-discussed characteristic of cro-magnons, by the way). Start to fall for these word games, and before you know it, you’ll be at a movie with him. Give the answer that you know is right.


  6. Amy Adams

    Love the debate–as someone who has taken only the required linguistics classes for an antediluvian English degree I am fascinated by the role of language here. Surely the reason for calling anybody “retard” is to insult them. Is it any surprise that people are offended by the word? It is used as a slur, that’s the point of using it at all.

    So, is it ever acceptable to comment on anybody’s mental abilities? “Stupid” has been used to mean “mentally slow” since 1540 according to Is it any better to call someone “mentally slow” than “mentally retarded”? “Dumb” comes from Old English and means “stupid” and “unable to speak”–and is considered offensive to mutes.

    So, what do we do? Stop commenting on people’s mental abilities? Consign all non-medical terms to slang and stop worrying about them? That would include words like “crazy” and “insane” as well–does the relevant population really want to keep/reclaim those words or wouldn’t it be better to make them all into generic insults.

    Language changes–it’s during the transitions that things get complicated. Seems like one can say “Goodbye” to an atheist without offending them–is “the r word” going that way, and if so, can we speed it up?


  7. Amy Adams

    Or perhaps we can reduce the incivility of the discourse by requiring the parties to use the accurate definitions. Instead of using the r word, people have to say e.g. “That comment reflects the mental development of a child between the years of 8 and 12.”

    I can’t imagine Glen Beck doing it, but I can imagine Keith Olbermann–“You, sir, have the opinions of a person of the second order in a former classification of mental retardation, above the level of idiocy, having a mental age of seven or eight years and an intelligence quotient of 25 to 50.”


  8. amyfarr Post author

    Amy’s* comments are very cogent — language is always in flux. Sometimes it’s hard to know what point in a word’s evolution we are, or when the speaker is at a different point than the listener.

    One friend — again, too prehistoric to use blog comments — sticks with inanimate insults. His favorite is the very evocative “door knob.” Perhaps he’s got the right idea: we should stop insulting one another with comparisons to groups or characteristics of people.

    *Not me. My law school classmate, The Mistress of All Evil. Yes, I’m totally jealous that that blog name was taken.


  9. Pingback: More on the “r-word” « Thought Snax

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