Which Words Are OK To Say?

Bryn DonovanFeminism12 Comments

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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 Quvenzhané 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?

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Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.
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Bryn DonovanWhich Words Are OK To Say?

12 Comments on “Which Words Are OK To Say?”

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  1. Profile photo of Cluisanna
    Cluisanna

    I love the word “absurd” as an alternative to crazy, mad or insane. It means the same thing without insulting anyone by association. I also like calling people bastards – mainly because being a child born out of wedlock is nothing out of the ordinary anymore (I am one, for instance ^^), so bastard just means ‘person who is bad’. It’s also less curse-y than “asshole”.
    Regarding dumb, stupid, idiot – I don’t really understand the issue with those words. I mean, some ideas and decisions just are stupid, that is exactly what the word means.

  2. Profile photo of Kym G
    Kym G

    I will cop to really loving the word cunt. Jon and I use “Shunt!” which is an awesome little mash-up of “shut up, cunt.” I do, however, acknowledge that many find it offensive and try to monitor my usage outside of the home. I have an exceptionally foul mouth, though, so I get away with throwing around some heavy duty swearing when I am with the people who know me well.

    I have been trying to to be more mindful of both crazy and lame. I know I still slip and use both, but I was a child of the 80’s in California! Lame is as deeply embedded in my brain as dude and gnarly, both of which I use too often.

  3. Profile photo of DrMrsJamesCole
    DrMrsJamesCole

    This is an oldie but a (reasonably-)goodie on the topic: http://www.shakesville.com/2007/11/on-bitch-and-other-misogynist-language.html.

    As someone who worked with disability groups for many years, I know how tricky language can be. Even in organizations that had oodles of sessions of sensitivity training and awareness, ‘retard’ ran rampant. I think it’s one thing to be unaware of the baggage of words, but when someone has heard specific reasons why some words are oppressive to some (and reduce them to lesser-than), it’s hard to understand why they still choose to be dismissive of those concerns. It does strike me as laziness and entitlement, in that kind of ‘I don’t have an issue with it therefore it’s okay’ manner that most privilege manifests itself with. I think a lot of people become afraid to try and deflate sexist/racist/ableist language because it feels like a petty thing to have concern over, and carries that risk of being alienated and/or labeled as making a Big Deal over Nothing. But words have power, so we do have to be aware of that, and not just accept language that hurts some but not us specifically. Wouldn’t we want our allies to do that for us as well?

  4. Profile photo of freckle [M]
    freckle [M]

    I’m not that word sensitive, it’s the person they’re coming from. If some stranger yells “Cancer bitch” at me (Dutch people like their illnesses as curse words) I can pity the dude for not being more creative in trying to offend strangers.
    If Boyfriend Freckle would call me a cunt I might slap him.

    I completely understand how we should think about what words we can use, but I also think it’s a black hole of what can(‘t) be said and I really don’t want to live in a society where we have to weigh every word.

      1. Profile photo of freckle [M]
        freckle [M]

        Cancer anything. I really dislike it, but on the other hand I use the Dutch version of TB and yell CHOLERA in moments of real anger. It’s a Dutch thing, I guess.

  5. Profile photo of [E] Sally Lawton
    [E] Sally Lawton

    This is a perpetual debate between boyfriend and I. I’m much more sensitive to words than he is, which is hardly surprising, and I’ve had to explain to him why certain things aren’t okay (and when they maybe are).

    For example, we were watching a comedian who told a rape joke (I KNOW!) and I laughed, and he was all, “Wait, you said you can’t tell rape jokes, why is this one okay?” And I explained to him why (the comedian was playing on the fact that the word rape is used in weird ways, and talked about a time someone told him he had “rapist” glasses on). It was okay because it didn’t rely upon rape culture violence and ended up lampooning rape culture in the end by discussing how very wrong it is to use the term indiscriminately.

    I go by, stop, think: does this word have a meaning that is somehow violent or oppressive to other groups? Is there a way to use this word that turns that meaning on its head, or is it best to avoid it?

    That is sometimes a good test.

  6. Profile photo of [E] pileofmonkeys
    [E] pileofmonkeys

    One that comes up a lot on my blog and that I just ranted about this weekend: when people say “I’m so OCD” to shorthand that they’re excessively tidy or particularly organized. First, OCD is something one has, not something one is, and second, most people who say this do not have OCD or OCPD, and they’re trivializing someone else’s legitimate mental illness. Add to that the fact that OCD doesn’t always or even usually manifest as being really clean, and it’s even more offensive.

    1. Profile photo of wannabemusicologist
      wannabemusicologist

      This might be sort of jerky of me, but I’ve started doing this recently and I’ve found it makes people think about their use of the term. Now when someone says ” omg I’m solo ocd!” I reply with “I’m so sorry to hear that it’s a really hard illness to have!” Then they have to awkwardly explain that no, they just like to do dishes right after dinner. A close friend’s mother has ocd and her experience shouldn’t be the subject of jokes.

      1. Profile photo of GwenBear
        GwenBear

        That is SUCH a great response. Mind if I steal it? I think I may adopt that as my go-to response for people who inappropriately say they’re OCD or bipolar or otherwise trivialize big things. I love it because it doesn’t have to come off as snarky, it can come off as very genuine (and be really genuine – maybe whoever said it really is serious!) while still making people think twice.

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