Alternatives to ableist terms

(Content warning: this article contains ableist slurs for the purposes of definitions)

We all know how language can evolve beyond our control. The word ‘literally’ can now mean the opposite, for example. But there are words that we use that have negative connotations.

The word ‘crazy’ used to mean ‘to be sickly and infirm’ back in the 1500’s but its meaning changed to ‘insane’ or demented’ a century later. In the 20th and 21st century, it became a colloquial term to describe something that was ‘unexpected’. But that change in use doesn’t make it okay in non-derogatory ways.

What is ableism?

Ableism is a form of discrimination against disabled people or those perceived to have disabilities. An example of ableism could be:

  • Calling someone ‘mental’ for leaving their door unlocked
  • Building difficult-to-read fonts
  • Creating a movie without audio descriptions or closed captions

Using ableist terms is a common form of ableism because of our dependence on media and conversation. Words like ‘crazy’, ‘stupid’, or ‘mental’ are still weaponised against people with mental illnesses and reinforce centuries of stigma.

Given the English language’s penchant for stolen—sorry, ‘loan’ words—there are plenty you can use in replacement of these terms. Here are some alternatives.

Note: context is key so some alternatives might not make sense for the same words. That’s for you to decide. These lists are also:

  1. Non-exhaustive
  2. Imperfect

So if I’ve included a term that is considered ableist and you have a better alternative, let me know in the comments and I’ll remove it. Nobody is above reproach regarding ableism and it’s all about doing better by people.

Are “idiot” and “moron” ableist?

Yes, they are but in varying degrees.

Here’s what disability activist and Paralympic medalist Elizabeth Wright had to say on the term “moron”:

Moron is a term attributed to Henry H. Goddard who was a psychologist and, perhaps most disturbingly, a eugenicist. He came up with the term to describe someone who was “feeble-minded.” According to MuseumHack, Goddard felt that the term “feeble-minded” wasn’t scientific enough, so he had to come up with his own.

From this point the history of moron gets even more disturbing. Remember Goddard was a prominent eugenicist at the time… he had his word, so he now had to figure out how to classify between people who he perceived to be intelligent or not. The tests that he came up with resulted in a stack of people, namely immigrants, being labelled as morons. This included Jews, Italians, and Hungarians.

Goddard decided that the best way forward was to sterilise people he identified as morons. Essentially anyone who was offensive or deemed “unfit” could and would be sterilised.

And for idiot:

Stepping right back into the history books, the origins of the term idiot are not that questionable. In fact the word idiot etymologically derives from the Greek word idiotes meaning “private person.” It was a term used to describe someone who kept their affairs to themselves.

In later years the word passed into Latin, becoming idiota. It is here that we start to see the problematic connotations of the word; it became synonymous with “ignorant person.” This meaning passed with the term throughout history, resulting in our use of it today to mean someone we perceive as being ignorant or stupid. You can read more about the history of the word idiot here — Tales of Times Forgotten.

I use the word idiot every day. I use it to describe myself sometimes and other people a lot. It is almost like a slip of the tongue, a common word in my linguistic insults dictionary. This one will be the hardest to stop using because it is literally everywhere.

Alternatives to crazy/mental/nuts

  • wild
  • unreal
  • incredible
  • bizarre
  • ridiculous
  • absurd
  • comical
  • farcical
  • silly
  • ludicrous
  • foolish
  • nonsensical
  • outrageous
  • shocking
  • astonishing
  • unbelievable
  • unthinkable

Alternatives to stupid

  • asinine
  • banal
  • clueless
  • fatuous
  • foolish
  • frivolous
  • gullible
  • ignorant
  • inept
  • insipid
  • irrational
  • misguided
  • misinformed
  • mistaken
  • naïve
  • oblivious
  • obtuse
  • uninformed
  • unwise
  • vacuous
  • vapid
  • wrong

Alternatives to idiot/moron/cretin

  • fool
  • asshole/arsehole
  • chump
  • jackass
  • jerk
  • melt
  • silly-billy
  • wally
  • git
  • muppet
  • tit
  • turkey
  • goofball
  • goof

Further reading

'Jamaican English is unique', says UWI Mona study

Black Jamaican Man

A study conducted by The University of the West Indies, Mona campus in Jamaica, found that Jamaican Standard English was unique enough to be classed as a “distinct variation” of the English language.

Rather than looking at accent and lexicon, the study analysed the acoustic properties of Jamaican English. The work came as part of a Department of Physics literacy project for tutoring Jamaican children and used speech models from 360 students in 12 schools.

Comparisons were made between American and British Standard English looking for differences in phonetic qualities and acoustics. Dr Andre Coy, senior physics lecturer in The Faculty of Science and Technology, told the Jamaica Observer explained that the purpose of the study was to aid Jamaica’s education system:

“The broader context is that we want to be able to use speech and language technologies, such as speech recognition or speech synthesis, in the assistance with education in Jamaica. We have the capacity at The UWI, Mona to use and develop speech recognition and synthesis technologies. Why not employ them to assist with vulnerable groups, such as children who are struggling to read or with the disabled, to develop assistant technologies for them?”

While this isn’t the same as acknowledging Jamaican patois as a language separate from English (which is something that has been discussed by UWI), it’s a step in the right direction and its use in boosting the education system is the ultimate goal and a positive one at that.

Further reading

Is multilingualism a privilege or survival?

learning spanish

I speak English. I still remember some Spanish from my GCSEs and, until 2017, it was my closest claim to multilingualism (I like to think my proximity to Jamaican counts but the powers that be still don’t see it as a language). That’s because I’ve been learning Portuguese for the last 3 years and it’s been an enjoyable ride. But for many people in Europe and around the world, they’ve had to learn another language – most often English – as a means of survival.

Parlez vous n’importe quel autre langage? (Do you speak any other language?)

According to European Data Journalism Network, only 1 in 5 Europeans knows two languages that aren’t their native language. Given the fact that multilingualism was one of the key principles of the European Union when it was created in 1993, this doesn’t look good on paper. The ability to speak in multiple languages has many benefits besides commercialism, as Jacopo Ottaviani said in his original piece (translated from Italian to English by EDJN):

“Beyond the clear commercial and industrial implications, the promotion of language learning means supporting understanding between people of different cultures, facilitating public transnational debate, and strengthening the European identity. Thus, multilingualism has a strategic dimension for Europe: as the Council itself argues, ‘multilingual competence is at the heart of the vision of a European Education Area’.”

The data below shows foreign languages that were learnt by primary school pupils in the EU in 2016, with Luxembourg leading the way and Portugal and Belgium being the least diverse.

Countries like Italy are improving with middle school children learning a second foreign language but the numbers vary region by region so it appears not to be a collective national initiative. The 2019 Invalsi report revealed that the best results for English comprehension, on average, were obtained by pupils in northern Italy as opposed to central and southern Italy.

The UK needs to do better

And if you’re wondering where the UK is, you might have forgotten that they aren’t in the EU anymore. But the numbers don’t look great for Britain either. A European Commission study found that 62% of people surveyed couldn’t speak any other language apart from English, 38% of Britons spoke at least one foreign language, 18% speak two, and only 6% of the population speak three or more.

But this view is myopic and doesn’t take into account the nuances of why people have to learn another language and what that second language usually is – English. A friend of mine saw things in the opposite direction; that multilingualism “wasn’t even a choice for non-English speakers”. And if we include people from outside Europe seeking refuge, for example, multilingualism becomes a game of survival.

Particularly in the UK, speaking English is a form of assimilation but that’s not always enough. Non-native speakers are ridiculed for how they speak English while it’s normal for Britons to not speak any other language but their own. There have been excuses for why they find it difficult:

  • Gendered nouns and adjectives
  • Knowing the correct pronouns (known as “T-V distinction”)
  • Verb conjugation

One thing I’ve often disliked about the English language is how many exceptions there are with regards to pronunciation. For example, the words rough, dough, cough, and bough don’t rhyme with each other. It’s fascinating to dig into their etymologies but for someone learning English to avoid persecution, there’s no time for fanciful idiosyncracies.

So if you’re European and struggling with Duolingo, don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re doing better than the majority of your peers just by using the app. But understand there are thousands of people who have to learn to protect themselves and their lives. Multilinguism may be a privilege for some but for others, it’s a matter of life and death with little-to-no choice in which they choose. Boa sorte!

Let's make like a tree and split?

Banana split

I write a weekly newsletter called Everything Is Made Up and I sign off with a variant of the phrase “I’m gonna make like an X and Y”. To keep things fresh, I use a website and work my way through the list.

That website is rec.humor.funny, “the net’s oldest and most popular comedy publication and newsgroup”. It also claims to be the world’s oldest blog, even older than Jason Kottke’s brilliant site. Jokes have been posted to the site since 1987 which predates the World Wide Web by a few years (and my birth). That’s old in internet years.

Some of my favourites:

  • Make like a banana and split (Carlton Banks said this on an episode of The Fresh Prince after a wonderful comeback to a black fraternity member who called him a sellout)
  • Make like a drum and beat it
  • Make like a tire and hit the road
  • Make like the devil and get the hell out of here
  • Make like the Red Sea and split
  • Make like lightning and bolt

Peter Sellers and the complete guide to accents of the British Isles

In a 1979 sketch, he presented “The Complete Guide To Accents of The British Isles”, as Don Shulman, an American professor of “accents and languages”. He travels through Europe and Britain playing numerous accents from John O’ Groats to Land’s End. Everything seems to be going well but then the sketch takes a dangerous turn…

“There was no Peter Sellers […] He was close to panic as himself and came alive only when he was impersonating someone else.” – Bruce Jay Friedman

Stream both parts below.

Peter Sellers: Complete Guide To Accents of The British Isles (pt1)
Peter Sellers: Complete Guide To Accents of The British Isles (pt2)

Standards Manual’s new book dedicated to late 90s Japanese emojis

Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed’s publishing imprint’s release a new book celebrating the emojis designed by Shigetaka Kurita for Japanese telecoms company Docomo. 176 symbols were originally created and according to their research, Docomo came up with the idea during a time when small amounts of data could be transferred between devices. The emojis are pretty archaic in comparison to the ones we use now but they’re wondrous to look at.

Semiotics: myths, #BlackLivesMatter & #AllLivesMatter

Intro to Semiotics Part 2: Sign, Myth and #AllLivesMatter

I’m still on my semiotics tip and discovered this interesting video about myths, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and the loathsome #AllLivesMatter. I was wary of how both hashtags would be described but they went how I’d hoped in such a short video. I’ve not heard or read about either one described from a semiotic perspective and it’s good to know the arbitrariness carries such weight in #AllLivesMatter.

As Electric Didact says when quoting semiotician Roland Barthes, “myth freezes or immobilises intention.” This considers the notion that while Black Lives Matter is a movement, All Lives Matter isn’t.

Watch the video below and leave a comment with your thoughts on the semiotics angle.

A Quick Lesson in Semiotics

Semiotics: the study of signs

Signs and symbols are all around us and their meanings carry much more than we think. Semiotics analyses sign processes and their relationship with each other and the world that uses them. It has a major influence on disciplines such as literature, graphic design, and communication. It is not the same as semiology, which is regarded as a subset of semiotics, introduced by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

In the video below, Matt Dewey discusses a brief overview of semiotics and how it all started. The discipline started in Europe but there was a split from semiology as Charles Sanders Peirce became the man behind what we know today.

2 polyglots have an awesome chat in 21 languages

unique encounter between 2 polyglots in 21 languages

It gets a little awkward in parts but regardless, you have two people who speak 21 languages between them. I can barely speak English sometimes. At the moment, I’m learning Portuguese with Spanish and French on the side. I love polyglots and some of my favourite people speak multiple languages. I better brush up on meu português.

What is a polyglot?

A polyglot is someone who can speak multiple languages. The word comes from the Greek polu-, meaning many, and glōtta, meaning tongue.

Languages featured:

English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Mandarin, Thai, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, Tagalog, Korean, Danish, Vietnamese, German, Albanian, Croatian, Macedonian, Greek, Serbian, and Bulgarian.

(P.S. I recommend learning a language using Duolingo)

The Ad Hominem Fallacy Fallacy

One particular phrase uttered by cocky know-it-alls is “ad hominem” or, in full, “argumentum ad hominem”. They also like to say things in other languages to sound more intellectual.

What is ad hominem?

Ad hominem is a logical fallacy whereby someone tries to undermine a person’s argument by attacking them rather than addressing the argument made.

But those on the losing side tend to throw it around when they’ve been backed into a corner and think they’ve won “something” and ad hominem is being used incorrectly pretty much every time.

Two wrongs don’t make a right

That’s where writer Stephen Bond comes in with his brilliantly written article on the fallacy’s fallacy. Once you’ve read it, you’ll see just how difficult it is to call “ad hominem” and in fact, there’s not much point because you’re arguing on the internet.

Follow the link and read The Ad Hominem Fallacy Fallacy here.

(image via Skepchick.org)