On the avoidance watch

Two recent objects of slur avoidance: illegitimate and retarded.

First, illegitimate, in a recent update to the AP Stylebook:

Do not refer to the child of unmarried parents as illegitimate. If it is pertinent to the story, at all, use an expression such as whose mother was not married, whose parents were not married or was born to an unmarried teenager.

There are two issues here. One has to do with the appropriateness of references (in any terms at all) to — how do I say this? — the marital status of someone’s parents at the time they were born. Time was when being born out of wedlock or having a child out of wedlock carried considerable social stigma, but now the stigma has largely withered away, so that these statuses are rarely relevant in reporting; a possible exception is in contexts where these statuses have legal consequences, but otherwise the implied AP Stylebook advice, to avoid mentioning these statuses in general, makes sense.

But even in contexts where the statuses might be relevant, the AP Stylebook counsels avoiding the word illegitimate and resorting to circumlocutions instead. Apparently, for some people the word has become a slur; presumably, what was originally a euphemism has inherited the slur status of expressions like bastard and is no longer seen as appropriate for polite company.

There’s a similar history for retarded, which started life as the euphemism mentally retarded (for what is now euphemized as developmentally disabled or mentally challenged). As W. Brewer noted in ADS-L this morning, it was not so long ago that retarded could be used without negative connotations, to the extent that it appeared on a U.S. postage stamp:

The 10-cent Retarded Children Can be Helped commemorative stamp was first placed on sale at Arlington, Texas, on October 12, 1974. This issue called attention to a national problem found in discrimination against children with mental disabilities. The stamp was designed by Paul Calle and was issued in sheets of fifty, with an initial printing of 140 million. (link)

From my “Annals of slurs” posting last year:

That brings us to the adjective retarded, used as a technical term for being mentally retarded, then (through a shift that occurs again and again) as a vernacular slur against such people, and then (through another shift that occurs again and again) as a generalized slur against people or actions that are viewed as defective or unsatisfactory in any way whatsoever. Retarded begets the back-formed noun rétard (note the accent pattern), again both a specific and a generalized slur, and the clipped variant tard, with the same uses.

Then new technical terms arise — notably special education or special ed for programs designed to aid the people in question — in the conflict between those who thoughtfully avoid giving offense and those who deliberately choose to give offense. Special ed gets abbreviated as SPED, and then (predicably) the noun sped develops a life as a specific insult and also as a generalized insult, directed at people. (Separately, the adjective mental picks up uses not only as ‘insane, crazy’, but also as ‘silly’ and as ‘retarded’ as a generalized slur.)

Then there are expressions designed to take in mental retardation and often physical disability as well (in a higher-level category that not everyone is comfortable with): special needs, and accompanying it, shortbus or short bus for the truncated buses used to convey special needs students to school in some parts of the U.S., and then (as a slur) for someone who rides on them. (In an appalling side development, there’s window licker, for those riders, viewed as pressed against the windows of their shortbuses to take in the scene outside.)

… This is one of those domains where running fast can do no better than keep you in place: every new expression (devised by one means or another) will almost surely be contaminated by association with the denotations in the domain, and so will be converted (in one way or another) to use as a specific slur and then as a generalized slur.

Where we are now: Matt Gordon reported on ADS-L two days ago:

I just got a campus announcement about a series of events under the heading “Spread the Word to End the Word.” Nowhere was the word in question noted. They did mention “persons with disabilities” but I had to google the campaign name to discover that they’re seeking an end to the r-word (“retard(ed)”). Since they mentioned disabilities, I thought they might be after “lame”, which is also a target of language policing.

Michael Newman noted a difference between retarded and lame: lame is scarcely used in its original sense in popular usage today (where it functions as a generalized put-down, of things or people). He then focused on spastic and spaz(z), which he understood only in the sense ‘uncoordinated, awkward’ until, in his 20s, he discovered the (historical) connection to cerebral palsy. That moved Ben Zimmer to link to his excellent discussion of spaz(z) on Language Log in 2006, focusing especially on U.S.-U.K. differences in the way the terms are used. And Jon Lighter to note that spaz and spastic, and fag and faggot as well, had already developed into generalized put-downs (without reference to disability or sexuality) among boys in his NYC school in 1959-60.

So it goes, on the great wheels of insults and euphemisms.

2 Responses to “On the avoidance watch”

  1. Steven Levine Says:

    The 18th-century hymnodist Charles Wesley, in “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (1739), included both “lame” and “dumb” in the final stanza. I do love this verse, but it is probably one to avoid in most contexts:

    Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
    Your loosened tongues employ;
    Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
    And leap, ye lame, for joy

    In the setting I am most familiar with, there is a joyous repetitive fugue at the end, which fall at “leap ye lame for joy”.

  2. Ellen K. Says:

    Seems to me not using the term illegitimate for those with unmarried parents is not “resorting to circumlocutions”. Rather, it’s not using a word that has become inaccurate. Children whose parents aren’t married are not illegitimate, and shouldn’t be called so. Using a more accurate wording is not a circumlocution.

    I do not think it’s a slur the way “bastard” is. I would not expect a current writer to use bastard to denote someone whose parents weren’t married in any circumstances (other than maybe historical fiction). “Illegitimate” when writing of places/times when the word was accurate is okay. Using it to denote a modern American with unmarried parents though would be offensive. Because the core meaning of the word does not in any way apply to these people.

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