Ableist Language – replacement suggestions from the Hand Mirror

Ampersand and I have periodically discussed the issue of ableist language. We’d both like to do better about purging some of the words that infest our vocabulary. In particular, the word “lame” has a tendency to creep into our statements, probably because it’s part of the sort of casual geek slang we both have a tendency to use.

We’ve made a pact — my husband is in on it, too — to try to note to each other when we slip and use the word without thinking.

Lately, I’ve been trying to come up with fun replacement words, particularly because I know that then I’ll be looking forward to opportunities to replace the ableist word with something fun. Cuz I’m a word dork.

My candidates (which don’t really work) are: Xander, as in “That’s so Xander,” and “I can’t believe you would say something so Xander,” because I really dislike Xander from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Obviously, that’s too in-jokey to pass real world muster.

My other candidate comes from the nerdy front: a friend of mine was recently reading some Victorian translations of medieval texts and coming across frequent usage of the term “brast,” which means burst or shatter, often with amusing faux-archaic add-ons, such as “to-brast,” e.g. “the spear went all to-brast.” Here’s an example of the term from Spenser: “Dreadfull furies which their chains have brast.” Another similar, out-of-usage word is “frush,” and its silly add-on “to-frush.” For instance from Shakespeare, “I like thine armor well; I’ll frush it and unlock the rivets all.”

None of these are particularly good replacements, even though they amuse me. But luckily Deborah at The Hand Mirror has an admirable list:


So, next time you have the urge to use inept ableist language, put aside your pathetic ableism, and be deficient no more. Don’t be Xander; don’t let your vocabulary go to-brast. Find another word.

(via Shakesville)

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38 Responses to Ableist Language – replacement suggestions from the Hand Mirror

  1. 1
    Pedantka says:

    I’m not certain I like weak as a potential substitute for lame–it seems too close a synonym to be properly non-ableist (especially considering ‘muscle weakness’, the fancy technical term for ‘I’m suddenly, and for no good reason, unable to hold this pen’).
    But inadequate, insufficient, unconvincing, etc., strike me as perfectly good words, with the added bonus of forcing one to consider exactly why, and in what way, one wishes to criticise something– ‘lame’ is a catch-all, and a sign of sloppy thinking.

  2. 2
    Mandolin says:

    a sign of sloppy thinking.

    I really dislike this argument, whether it’s about slang or curse words or language that’s offensive for reasons like ableism or misogyny.

    It’s not sloppy thinking; it’s the evolution of language. Catch-alls are useful. I’m very glad I don’t have to say “short-haired medium-sized three-year-old dillute tortoiseshell with yellow eyes” every time I want to say “cat.”

    That said, I do think that it’s important to consider precision when one is trying to replace words like “lame” or “crazy.” Particularly with “crazy” — I try to think about what I’m *really* trying to criticize about the stance, and usually what I want to say is “irrational.”

  3. 3
    UnHinged Hips says:

    I’m a fan of “rubbish” or “trash”

    Or when wry understatement is the right tactic: “That’s…less than ideal.”

  4. 4
    Myca says:

    We’ve made a pact — my husband is in on it, too — to try to note to each other when we slip and use the word without thinking.

    Hey, sign me up!

    I wrote an entire post about “The Internet Crazification Factor” and almost hit “post” before realizing that I ought not use the word crazy.


  5. 5
    Ali says:

    Thanks for this. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed/miffed that my call for an author here to remove “lame” from a recent post went completely ignored.

  6. 6
    Krupskaya says:

    That list of words strikes me because the vast majority of them are latinate (and “lame” is not). Reading them in a list is much less satisfying than reading a list of words with Anglo-Saxon and Germanic roots.

  7. 7
    Thene says:

    Dan Savage’s last column (NSFW text) was themed on attempting to replace the r-word with ‘leotarded'; I have no idea how seriously-intended or pointful this is, but it’s another example of replacement attempts.

  8. 8
    PG says:

    I’ve been consciously avoiding “lame,” “crazy,” “nuts,” “idiotic,” “moronic” and “dumb,” and thus find myself using the word “stupid” a lot. I get what Krupskaya is saying about the unsatisfying nature of Latinate words when you want to bust out an Anglo-Saxon on somebody’s ass, and in particular “inept” usually isn’t the term I want. If I’m going off on a homophobe’s argument, the problem is not that the argument is “without skill or aptitude; awkward, clumsy” but rather that it is often lacking logic or a sound working relationship with reality (the guy in the NYT “Room for Debate” today, who apparently believes that lesbians are barred from women’s locker rooms in civilian life, is a good example). His argument is quite skillful, it’s not at all awkward or clumsy — it’s just out of touch with reality.

  9. 9
    nakedthoughts says:

    I’ve started to use “poo” and synonyms for everything. I can’t think of someone being offended by calling something bad excrement. sometimes I even qualify it as poo can be used in positive ways and I want everyone to know I mean really icky poo.

  10. 10
    kat says:

    Funny, I was just thinking about this. I would really like to excise “lame” from my vocabulary, but have yet to find a really good catch-all with which to replace it. “Stupid” isn’t satisfying, and when you think about it, most insults or expressions of dissatisfaction are either ableist or otherwise insulting to a particular group.

    What’s a girl to do?? I would love a one syllable word that is expresses my mild dislike for something. Nonsensical is nice but not required.

    Because, really, when I’m horribly mad, it’s fun to yell “Porcamiseria!” but that’s reserved for exceptional situations.

  11. 11
    Jason L. says:

    “Idiot” and “moron”, are, to the best of my untutored knowledge, no longer used by mental health professionals to refer to mentally disabled people, let alone by laypersons. I don’t think the words themselves are therefore any more (mentally) ableist than “stupid” is. Just as it would be insensitive to describe a bus full of mentally disabled chidren as the bus for idiots or morons, it seems to me that it would be equally offensive to call it the bus for stupid kids.

    I likewise am uncomfortable with characterizing “weak” as ableist. Surely we can say that someone’s argument is weak, or that their understanding of a subject is weak, or that their grasp of a language is weak. If “weak” is out, then why not “ugly” (“torture is an ugly stain on America’s moral authority”) or “decrepit” (“the decrepit house had to be torn down”)?

    Perhaps the place to draw the line is where we use a word like “moronic” to simply mean “undesirable” or “bad” rather than “poorly thought-out”, “unintelligent”, “irrational”, aut cetera.

  12. 12
    Jenny says:

    I agree with Jason L: I still use the words he mentions and I usually use them to describe an action, statement, or argument as opposed to an actual person.

  13. 13
    sqrrel says:

    I think ‘fail’ is a decent possible replacement for ‘lame’, if you don’t mind vaguely internet joke-derived terms.

  14. 14
    Felicity says:

    Actually, one possible replacement I’ve considered comes from Joss Whedon more directly: in Fray, which also used the latterly iconic “shiny” and the lesser-known “rocketship” as positive terms, anything that needed contemptous rejection was “toy”.

    Not perfect, but it has its points, brevity and Anglo-Saxon heritage being two. It’s also fairly clear when you deliver it in a stinging tone (I know, I know, stinging tone isn’t available on the internet.)

  15. 15
    Eva says:

    Mandolin, thanks for posting this.

    I think it was Maia who posted a few months ago about a number of items including inquiries into replacing the word “lame”. I don’t think that post went very far, so I’m glad you’ve brought it up again, as I’ve been looking for words to replace it myself. The only word I’ve been using with any regularity is “suspect”, which doesn’t always work. So I’m pretty excited to have a bunch more options.

    I think “hollow” could be my prefered replacement. I don’t know what the origin of the word is, but it’s not fricative and it’s only two sylables. Plus, I can easily imagine myself saying “That is so hollow!”, in my best memory channeling of my 15 year old self.

  16. 16
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Aren’t those all substitutes for “lame”? Are there any recommendations for “crazy”?
    To my mind, “crazy” means that something isn’t just wrong, it’s flamboyantly wrong.

    And just to be generational about it all, I’m amazed (and better-informed) to find out what an important word “lame” has become, but “crazy” really is part of my vocabulary. I’m willing to use alternatives, but I don’t even need an alternative for “lame”.

  17. 17
    Jason L. says:

    “Unhinged” might work for “crazy”, but, again, maybe this is generational, I think that “crazy” is like “moronic”. Someone who works at a mental hospital would not respond to the question, “what do you do?” with, “I work with crazy people.”. If someone told me that a relative was going crazy, I would take it to mean that the relative was stressed out or had had it up to here with [whatever], rather than the relative was actually becoming mentally ill.

  18. 18
    kat says:

    “I still use the words he mentions and I usually use them to describe an action, statement, or argument as opposed to an actual person.”

    So, do you think it’s ok to use “gay” to mean any thing or situation that you don’t like or think is sucky (for lack of a better word), because you’re not using it to degrade an actual gay person?

    Because it seems the same, to me.

  19. 19
    Jason L. says:

    Jenny @12 thinks she agrees with me; I’m not sure she does.

    I was arguing against consigning “moronic” and “weak” the the ableist dustbin in which “lame” has been placed. Whether you call a person by one of these terms or an argument by one of these terms is immaterial. I don’t find anything ableist about calling a person who is irrational or makes unintelligent decisions “moronic” (not very nice, and often not productive, but not ableist) any more than I find anything abelist about calling a policy or argument that is irrational or unintelligent “moronic”.

    I think there are two distinctions we should be aware of w/r/t whether a word used in a certain way is ableist or not. Whether it is directed at a person is not one of them.

    The first distinction is between words that unavoidably denote members of a marginalized group, such as “gay” or “lame”, and words that may once have done so but do so no longer, such as “moronic” or “crazy”. “Moronic” used to be the neutral term for referring to people with a certain degree of mental disability (as determined by IQ tests, I believe), but now is an especially deprecating way of saying “poorly thought-out”, “unintelligent”, “irrational”, etc.. Use of the term in its earlier sense is now at best dated and at worst offensive–nowadays the sensitive term is “mentally-disabled” or something more specific known to clinicians but not to me, or perhaps the classification of degrees of mental disability based on IQ tests is no longer used, so the category that “moronic” applied to is not considered medically valid.

    I think I’d like to amend what I wrote earlier–while I wouldn’t respond to “sorry, I can’t go hiking with you because I busted my leg,” with “oh, that’s moronic”, it would be because that response would be nonsensical rather than ableist. “Moronic” just doesn’t mean a generic “bad” or “unfortunate”, in ableist speech or in non-ableist speech. Only if I thought that a busted leg were a poor reason for not hiking with me would it make sense for me to say “oh, that’s moronic”, in which case I would just be wrong, but not ableist.

    The other distinction is situations where people or things are being described that actually do belong to the category versus those that don’t. For example, describing social security privatization as moronic is not offensive, but describing a group of mentally disabled people as moronic is. Oddly enough, the reverse is true for the gay/lame class of words, as opposed to the crazy/moronic class. Describing social security privatization as gay is offensive, but describing a group of gay people is not. (Well, not categorically. If some stereotypically-gay-appearing people are walking down the street, and you roll your eyes or turn up your nose and say, “look at them, they’re so gay”, then that is offensive, but there the problem isn’t that you used the word “gay”.) The key, I think, is whether the implication is that gayness or lameness = badness, or anything beyond homosexuality or mobility-impairment that is undesirable.

    I don’t feel good about:
    “So you’re voting in the special election to decriminalize marijuana, right?”
    “Oh, sorry, I can’t–I’m too busy.”

    But I have no problem with:
    “So you’re voting in the special election to decriminalize marijuana, right?”
    “Oh, sorry, I can’t–I’m too busy.”
    “Oh come on, that’s a pretty weak reason.”

    This is just my intuition speaking–I’m not quite sure it’s right that one of these is OK and the other isn’t. What do y’all think?

  20. 20
    PG says:

    Jason L.,

    While “moron” and “idiot” are not in vogue in the medical profession, they remain part of the law:

    “Every citizen of the United States, who is over the age of twenty-one years, and has resided in New Mexico twelve months, in the county ninety days, and in the precinct in which he offers to vote thirty days, next preceding the election, except idiots, insane persons and persons convicted of a felonious or infamous crime unless restored to political rights, shall be qualified to vote at all elections for public officers.” (NM Constitution)

    As recently as Oct. 2008, the NYT documented similar language in several other states, including New Jersey.

  21. 21
    Kay Olson says:

    Yay for all efforts to excise “lame” as a disparagement. Also, yay for 20 comments on the topic and no one whining about having to be politically correct.

    As someone who is, medically-speaking, actually “lame,” I am not so much offended by the term as always left wondering if the person who uses it thinks I am someone to disparage because of my lack of walking ability.

    I’m much more offended by the use of “moron” and “idiot,” probably because those have been persistent legal and medical terms to categorize people, frequently in order to condone lesser civil rights.

    Jason L., “moronic” was never a neutral term. It has always been used in some manner — whether “medically valid” or not — to single out an incredibly devalued group of people for institutionalization, segregated education, sterilization, etc. The term can’t be separated from the way it devalues no matter how outmoded you think it is. Like the term “colored” for black folks in the U.S., it can’t be used without at least calling into question your own personal valuation of that group of people. (Are you racist? Or just clueless about the history and hurtfulness connected to the era when the term was most often or most legitimately used?)

    And I agree with Pedantka that “lame” is sloppy thinking in the same way “nice” is. “Oh, that’s lame.” “Oh, that’s nice.” Neither says anything specific about what’s wrong or cool. Though most slang is nonspecific, isn’t it?

    I like “wrong,” btw. “That’s so wrong.” “That’s a big fat bowl of wrong, right there.”

  22. 22
    bread & roses says:

    I think I’m walking into a conversation that began long before, and will probably make an ass of myself, but… it seems to me that some version of “stupid” “moronic” “idiotic” will always be in current use, because most people view having low intelligence as…. undesirable. I don’t think it’s an analogy with “gay” or ethnic slurs, because the changing of the language has gone along with an effort to change the culture to understand that there is nothing wrong or less valuable- and indeed, that it can be very desirable to be gay or non-white. I don’t really know anyone who thinks that having low intelligence is desirable. I know plenty of people who think that people who are developmentally disabled are as valuable and cherishable and so on as anyone else- I count myself among them. But the single trait of having low intelligence is just… not desirable. As is the trait of not being able to walk well. Or, I think, having a mental illness.

    I’ve had several conversations with people where we were discussing someone else in terms of roles: would X make a good treasurer, what if we ask Y to send out that mailing, and I’ve said something along the lines of.. X is enthusiastic and friendly, but she’s not very smart, I think she’d do better in a role that was more people oriented… and I get looked at like I’m cruel and heartless. Now, maybe I’m wrong about X, but I would never say that to her face, because everyone I know takes it as a dire insult to say they aren’t smart. But I like X. I think she’s great. I just don’t think she’s smart, but it’s insulting to be matter-of-fact about that. No one I know takes it as an insult if someone says they’re gay, or chinese, or whatever, if it’s a matter of fact- only if it’s meant as an insult. But who wants to hear that they aren’t smart?

    I think what I’m trying to work around to here is that labeling people is never kind. But labeling traits and describing them is normal, everyday, inevitable, and valuing some traits over others is also normal, everyday, and I think, perfectly ethical. The argument is lame, the leg is lame. Nobody wants a lame argument OR a lame leg. (correct me if I’m wrong). My husband, who is lame, would be overjoyed to be able to run around tomorrow. But I was overjoyed to marry him, lame, and he was overjoyed to marry me even though I’m somewhat crazy (neurotic and depressive, to be precise).

    Anyhow, I don’t think changing the language means anything when the underlying values stay the same, and I don’t think being lame will ever be as desirable as being able to walk, even though a person who is lame can be the most desirable person you’ve ever met. (and I can testify to that).

  23. 23
    Xelgaex says:

    At first blush, the argument that words like “moronic,” “idiot,” or “crazy” are no longer used within medicine and are now considered offensive to use for actual medical conditions would seem like a reasonable argument, and I might have nodded and thought nothing further of it if it wasn’t found in this thread. You see, it seems to me that “lame” is very similar. The secondary definition of the word has overtaken the primary and is now more common.

    Does this mean “lame” is OK to use? Not if it offends. And it can still offend if this thread is any indicator. The term does have a history after all. So it strikes me that the same reasoning could apply to the outdated psychiatric terms.

    Now “crazy” doesn’t personally offend me, but given the stigma that is sometimes attached to seeking psychiatric treatment, I can imagine others in similar situations being offended by its use. So even though I suffer from depression, I wouldn’t use that fact to tell others that they don’t have any good reason to be offended.

    Additionally my condition is relatively mild and thus concealable so I have the privilege that goes with that. I might be much more sensitive if my condition were more obvious. Recognizing this with respect to “crazy,” I can understand how I am in even less of a position to judge whether anyone should be offended by “lame” or “moronic.”

    So even though I thought the argument was reasonable, I realize that I’m not the person who gets to decide whether someone else’s offense is reasonable. And that means I should probably be watching my language more.

  24. 24
    birdyrabbit says:

    @#16 I am totally adopting “flamboyantly wrong” as my new “crazy”.

    I came out of long-time lurk just to say that.

    I often irritate my friends by objecting to “retarded”. Having a hard time not using “crazy” and “nuts”, but I’m working on it… I didn’t realize how often I use them! “Lame” is not a word I tend to use, but not that I’m paying attention, I see just how common it is.
    Oddly, although I’m physically disabled, I’m not offended by the word “lame” (though I respect that others are)… “retarded” on the other hand, really bothers me.

    Thanks for making me think :)
    /resume lurk

  25. 25
    Froufrou says:

    well, living in a very much closed environment as far as speaking English goes (The only people I speak English with are my family), I don’t think I’ve ever used the word lame, except when speaking of horses :)

    I come from a lot of privilege here, obviously, but I also grew up, and live in, a country that doesn’t speak English, so a lot of the language conundrums have gone straight over my head.
    I knew of the meaning of ‘idiot’, but that’s precisely why it’s used as an insult,I guess. As someone said, no-one wants to be less than smart.
    Luckily I don’t use moronic, but I’ll have a hard time excising idiot from my vocabulary. I don’t want to offend people as a general rule :)
    /also going back to lurking

  26. Pingback: Word Watch - Lame | Right to Bleed

  27. 26
    Mandolin says:

    Oddly, although I’m physically disabled, I’m not offended by the word “lame” (though I respect that others are)… “retarded” on the other hand, really bothers me.

    I think a lot of people have that experience. I have conditions that could be called “crazy,” but don’t find slang use of the word offensive. So on the one hand, I have to admit that I don’t have one of the most stigmatized varieties of “craziness,” and I don’t appear “crazy” to others, so that may be why it doesn’t bug me. On the other hand, it’s one of the reasons I’m more likely to focus on eliminating words from my vocabulary that *don’t* have anything to do with my group identity — like lame and retarded.

  28. 27
    kat says:

    I don’t think it’s an analogy with “gay” or ethnic slurs, because the changing of the language has gone along with an effort to change the culture to understand that there is nothing wrong or less valuable- and indeed, that it can be very desirable to be gay or non-white.

    Well, yes. But. There are a couple of different things going on. One is continued ableism, homophobia and racism, which people use to insult, belittle, de-humanize. While some progress has been made, many still find it undesirable to be at all different.

    The other is more on-topic to this discussion, which has centered on words whose original, demeaning definitions have been softened or ignored so that the word becomes a more general expression of displeasure or bad-ness.

    Using “lame,” “moron” or “gay” to specifically demean or insult someone for those particular traits
    Using “that’s so lame” or “that’s so gay” to describe a situation that has nothing to do with physical ability or sexuality, but is simply annoying or displeasing.

    We can fully believe that there is nothing wrong with being differently abled but still be lazy in our choice of slang.

    As for “stupid” and such….I’m not sure. I think you’re right, Bread and Roses, that low intelligence is considered to be undesirable, but I’m undecided as to whether using it as an insult is ableist or offensive. I’d welcome others’ thoughts on it!

  29. 28
    PG says:

    I don’t quite understand the problem with saying that something is stupid, considering that “stupid” to my knowledge never has been used to classify and label people (whereas “lame,” “idiot,” “moron,” etc. have been). I use “stupid” in judging the quality of an argument, and one thing that is relevant to quality are the levels of relevant knowledge and logic on display. These don’t necessarily involve intelligence in any IQ sense; I have seen plenty of people with high IQs make stupid arguments or say stupid things that showed they didn’t know the relevant facts or that they would use unsound logic. I would laugh at them if they responded to my saying, “That’s a stupid argument” with “It can’t be, because I have a 150 IQ!”

  30. 29
    Mo says:

    I like the British term – “pants.” As in “well that just went totally pants on you, didn’t it.” It can be upsized to “load of pants” or “pile of pants.” The OED gives the definition in this sense as “rubbish or nonsense.” It’s short and sweet, a good substitute for lame, methinks.

    My household picked it up when Robot Wars was showing on PBS a few years back, and BBC America has helped keep it going. As it also means underwear in Britspeak, it’s just naughty enough to delight American children, without shocking the sorts of folks who don’t watch British comedy.

  31. 30
    Robert Berger says:

    I like ponies. Do you?

  32. 31
    Crazy fat lady says:

    bread & roses, I would just like to say, as a person on the autism spectrum – I do value my different way of thinking,’ and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Perhaps those with low IQ’s also have something unique to offer the world, something the rest of us lack?
    That said, I don’t really feel the whole word-banning approach, at least not unless there is some logic behind it – as in the case of lame and gay. ‘Weak’ is a descriptive term which doesn’t necessarily refer to a person (how am I supposed to describe my weak coffee?) and, as far as I know, didn’t even originally refer to a group of people. Crazy is a term I would like to reclaim – I prefer it to ‘mentally ill’ for the same reason I prefer ‘fat’ to ‘overweight’ – the latter terms inherantly suggest there is something wrong, some arbitrary standard of mental health or ideal weight which is not being met.

  33. 32
    Daran says:

    I like the British term – “pants.” As in “well that just went totally pants on you, didn’t it.” It can be upsized to “load of pants” or “pile of pants.” The OED gives the definition in this sense as “rubbish or nonsense.” It’s short and sweet, a good substitute for lame, methinks.

    I also like “pants” as a slang term. Trouble is, it isn’t an exact synonym for “lame”, which to me means “weak”. “Pants” means “bad” or “rubbish”.

  34. 33
    Christina says:

    Thanks for making this post. Would it be wishful thinking to hope you might then change some of the offensive language in this post considering it was featured in a primer on racism and privilege that while teaching others about privilege also normalizes ableist language? I understand that it’s not up to the writers of this blog who links back to them, but responsible education is a must, and it’s important that in our desire to achieve equality, including ableism as something to bring consciousness to is also very important.

  35. 34
    Mandolin says:

    Hi Christina,

    I didn’t write that post, but I’ll mention your comment to the post author.

  36. 35
    Christina says:

    I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was written by someone else (running on low amount of sleep here). Thank you for passing the message on, Mandolin.

  37. 36
    Jackie says:

    I like in one episode of Penn & Teller’s BS, where they went back in time to the Ye Olde Days, and their show was called BillyCock! That’d be a funny insulting term to use, um, unless you know someone named Billy I guess.

  38. 37
    JonB says:

    I realize this is an old post, but it’s new to me. And eye-opening–outside of the r-word, I’ve never realized ableist language was a problem. And I never knew “moron” and “idiot” had clinical meanings.

    Could someone explain the problem with Latinate words? Why the preference for Anglo-Saxon?