All of us, unless we are particularly ignorant or terrible, recognize some words as patently offensive: “gay” or “retarded” as negative adjectives, for example, or any version of the n-word out of the mouth of a non-black person. However, some words that I think are OK to use are considered sexist or ableist by others, so I’m keeping my mind open to the possibility that I might be wrong.
Some people cringe at the word “crazy,” because they or someone they care about has suffered from mental illness. At P-Mag, we are trying to avoid this one. I’ve struggled with mental illness, and using “crazy” to describe things that are extreme, or that are bad and do not make sense, doesn’t bother me personally. Using it to describe a mentally ill person does offend me. I am more than happy to use it to refer to myself, which probably merits some examination.
Many feminists object to “bitch” as a derogatory term for a woman. It seems to me like roughly the female equivalent of “dick,” and not a big deal. Women frequently turn it around, as when Tina Fey famously said of Hillary Clinton:
Maybe what bothers me the most is that people say that Hillary is a bitch. Let me say something about that…Bitches get stuff done.
Logically, “cunt” should be the female equivalent of “dick.” But in the U.S., at least, it is a sui generis insult, which is why everyone correctly flew into a rage when some dipshit from The Onion live-tweeting the Oscars used it to refer to child actor QuvenzhanÃ© Wallis. (The Onion issued a sincere and unqualified apology.)
A few bloggers have attempted to explain just why “cunt” is such a terrible insult, and none of them have done so to my satisfaction. Maybe the fact that it isn’t used often allows it to carry more withering scorn. In a male-dominated society, it’s impossible to imbue a word for male genitalia with that much ugly taboo, which is a good enough reason not to use it.
The expression “cunt punt” unfortunately became known to more people this past week when an angry sorority sister’s email went viral. This phrase is the most compact equation possible of women’s sexuality and deserved violence. It’s not funny. It’s neither cute nor badass when a girl uses it. It’s the worst.
Some people have called out “lame,” used since at least the late ’80s to describe anything deficient or lacking, as an ableist term. The usage of “lame” to describe a physical condition is somewhat archaic, i.e. “Jesus healed the sick and the lame.” Long before it became slang, “lame” was often used to describe an excuse or an argument, which is probably another reason why people don’t always think of the connection to disability. In any case, though, my using “lame” as derisive slang seems not only questionable, but also dumb. Wait, “dumb” is another possibly ableist word. Replace that with “inane.”
The problem with eradicating “crazy” and some of these other words from my vocabulary is that they are so versatile. Crazy versatile! Of course, some of our most versatile words are the least precise and expressive ones, and replacing them might result in making me sound more articulate. For instance:
“This weather is so crazy.” / “This weather is so extreme and unpredictable.”
“She is such a bitch.” / “She is cruel to others.” (That second option is more damning, no?)
“This post is lame.” / “This post is a shallow, flippant treatment of a complex and serious subject.”
What words are you trying to give up? What words do you wish everyone else would stop saying? Or are there some that you’ve decided to keep?