If You Think A Word Might Be Offensive, Then Just Find A New Word

by Elizabeth Broadbent
anot-poloskun / iStock

I’ve used the words. I’ve used them unknowingly, then I’ve used them, later, in private, annoyed that the PC police had taken them away from me. I didn’t understand who or what I was hurting. Now I do, and I’m ashamed. I didn’t realize the godlike power of language to shape our world, our attitudes. I just didn’t get it: that these words normalize terrible things, that they marginalize whole groups of people. That unlike the old playground chant, sticks and stones can break my bones — but words can really wound me.

The alt-right will call me a pathetic little snowflake. The conservatives will deplore the idea of political correctness, which the rest of us like to refer to as “caring about others.” But there are some out there who really care, who really want to know what they should and shouldn’t say in polite company — or any company, really. Even us lefties/progressives are sometimes blindsided by a word. So we came up with a list, with explanations, to help people understand which words to avoid if you feel like giving a shit about someone else’s feelings.


As in, “That YouTube video was lame.” According to Merriam-Webster, “lame” is defined as “having a body part and especially a limb so disabled as to impair freedom of movement; physically disabled.” When you use this word, you equate someone who can’t walk — without limping, without crutches, without a wheelchair — to something stupid and useless. Not okay. I used this word, and felt angry about its offensive connotations, until a few months ago. We on the left are not immune here.


As in, when someone says something stupid, “Are you retarded?” Retarded used to be a medical term for “mentally deficient.” Now we use it to mean someone’s being stupid. What does this word convey to our special needs children and adults? Down syndrome, Fragile X, Angelman, or any other condition that is often aligned with cognitive delays. They aren’t “stupid,” and that nomenclature strikes too close to home. By the way, the same goes for the words “tard” and “tarded.” “But I’d never use the word to refer to a real mentally deficient person!” you say. Yes, but when you use it, you perpetuate a dangerous stereotype that values “normal” and “typical” above all else. And you aren’t Hitler, so just STFU.


All this language stuff didn’t hit me until I started hearing these words with new ears, because with bipolar disorder and treatment-resistant depression, they were comparing things to me. Someone isn’t “psycho[tic]” when they yell at you. They aren’t “crazy” when they don’t add cream to their coffee. And they aren’t “schizo[phrenic]” when they change their minds a bunch. Using these words trivializes actual, painful mental conditions that cause people untold suffering. My disease is not trivial. Don’t treat it as such and call your BFF “bipolar” because she likes both Coke and Pepsi.


“That’s gay.” “You’re so gay.” Unless you’re referring to someone who likes to make love to people of the same gender, this word is off-limits. It came into popular use to mean “stupid” or “dumb,” much like the word “lame,” and in those uses, marginalizes those who aren’t heterosexual. When you say something stupid is gay, you say people who are gay are stupid. Make sense? Don’t do it.


Babywearers hear this one a lot. “What a cute little papoose!” No. Just no. It’s been, as History Research Shenanigans says, appropriated into the English language from the Algonquin, probably losing a lot of syllables along the way. It’s not appropriate to use in reference to non-Native children. And even with Native children, it can sound like a slur coming out of a non-Native mouth. So don’t use it.


Ooooh boy. Our Cheetonious overlord likes to refer to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” because of her Native ancestry. Pocahontas was a real person. You can’t use her as a generic Native American nickname. It reduces an entire people — entire groups of people — to one single woman who happened to marry a white dude and die in England, far from her family. You can’t deploy her as a nickname.


Spaz is short for “spastic,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “characterized by hypertonic muscles; spastic cerebral palsy.” So it’s an actual medical condition — often a painful and debilitating one. You can’t use it to refer to someone who’s overly excitable. That denigrates the suffering people undergo. Those people aren’t even “spastic” anymore. They “have spasms.” The former noun is outdated and offensive.


No, it’s not spelled “jipped.” When you see it typed out, you realize: Oh shit, this actually comes from the word “gypsy.” It means, partially according to Urban Dictionary, to get much less than you paid for, to get swindled, to get cheated. “Gypsy” is actually a wildly offensive term for the nomadic Romany people. So when you use this term, you not only say they’re apt to steal from you, you are calling them a racial slur. Remove from your vocab, stat.


We use it to describe, according to Know Your Meme, an overly emotional response. However, “butthurt” originally comes from spanking. That’s not great, but as it’s moved through the lexicon, it’s picked up connotations of sexual violence, particularly anal rape. It can be triggering for rape survivors, viewed as homophobic, and it’s ugly. Err on the side of caution, and don’t use it.


When I was a kid, my grandfather called everyone this, regardless of race. It took me until college to put two and two together: Cotton-pickers were black people. This is a racial slur for an African-American person. The same goes for the adjectival form, “cotton-picking.” Another little known African-American slur among white people? Porch monkey. These are all the equivalent of the N-bomb.

You’re going to say I’m too PC. You’re going to say that you can use whatever words you damn well want to, and they’re just words, and since you aren’t actually using them to apply to the people they historically describe, it doesn’t fucking matter. Or you don’t care who you offend because you’ll do what you want.

Sure. Fine. Whatever. Deny that words have power. Deny that they shape the attitudes and perceptions that surround us. Notice how these words describe the marginalized by race or ability. Notice how they’re all negative in context, and that I don’t need to explain the word “cracker.” People have asked us to stop using these words — the people who are oppressed, marginalized, and offended by them. They say they are hurtful. The least we can do, as decent human beings, is listen to them. Find a new word.