English is a language with many synonyms and a wider variety of word choice than many other European languages. It’s a good thing when we’re forced to look at word choice and the variety of expressions that may more accurately convey our thoughts. Most intelligent people can agree that there are some generally offensive words that shouldn’t be used in polite conversation, or used at all – often these are words that refer to someone’s ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender or disability.
But the slurs and racial epithets that are generally accepted as insulting to a group of people – such as “the n-word” — are not as controversial as the terms that are more commonly used by those who claim no ill intent. Not everyone agrees with recent efforts (by organizations such as Macalester College’s More than Words campaign or dedicated social justice advocates) to erase words or phrases that may not have been considered offensive 20 years ago.
Why isn’t a clear insult as controversial as a more indirect and commonly used reference? Because there are people fighting over these seemingly innocuous terms, insisting on their right to use them or the right to criticize others for using them. The backlash against phasing out these words often takes the form of, “We are becoming too politically correct.” Or that to phase out what appears to be a tame word accuses the speaker of harboring ableist thoughts that they did not intend to express.
Intent and context do matter when we speak or write. Gray areas exist. Those who say that context doesn’t matter because a word may be “triggering” in any situation are probably a bit too rigid in their outlook, and those who resist any phasing out of words because they fear censorship and PC policing are probably protesting too much.
The words below are those most often fought over, analyzed and critiqued, sometimes for their origins and in other cases for promoting stigma and shame. These are the terms that are still unclear, and that some hold onto dearly in an attempt to justify their good intentions.
This word has inspired plenty of fights over its proper use. Those who argue for this word’s removal consider it to be insulting to people with mental illness. Because the mentally ill have often been called “crazy” in a derogatory fashion, it has been suggested in the past few years that this word be phased out of slang and common usage. “I’ve had a crazy day,” for instance, may seem innocuous, but there are staunch advocates against that kind of expression. Instead, words such as “ridiculous,” “weird,” “awful,” and “chaotic,” are considered to be more appropriate. The fight over the word “crazy” continues because there is no clear instruction for its use by an official organization like the Associated Press.
Like the word “crazy,” this is also a word that has received criticism as a slight against the mentally ill, for similar reasons. In the past, it has been used to insult those with mental illnesses and therefore can be triggering to some. “My psycho ex is stalking me,” sounds fairly benign, but beware that there is a movement to exclude these types of expressions about mental illness from the slang lexicon.
Although this word is no longer commonly used to refer to a person with a limp or a physical disability, its origins – much like the equally controversial word “gimp,” – are considered to be offensive to physically disabled people. “That is such a lame excuse,” may be a phrase used without any knowledge of the origin of the word, and although some consider it a mild adjective to otherwise mean “unfounded,” “boring,” or any other number of ways of expressing that something is not cool or interesting, it is still being campaigned against as an ableist and potentially offensive word due to its history.
The origins of this word refer to “spastic,” the tremors or shaky movements of someone with a neurological disorder such as cerebral palsy. It has largely fallen out of common usage in the last 20 years, but attempts to phase out the word completely have been met with backlash.
This word was used in medical terminology to refer to people with mental disability as early as the 13th century, especially those who either could not read or write, or who were developmentally disabled, and in more modern texts it referred to someone with an IQ of less than 70. Due to its history as a medical term that was the equivalent of “retarded,” recent attempts have been made to phase it out. And those attempts are met with equal criticism that this word is no longer used in an offensive manner. It’s interesting that the word “stupid” has not been targeted as equally offensive, even though the origins of the word “stupid,” “dumb,” and “imbecile” are similar to the word “idiot” and were also historically used in medical literature. These designations were later used by politicians who wanted to exclude mentally delayed people from voting.
Like “idiot,” this word (from the Greek word for “dull”) was also used up until the early 20th century to describe a person with a developmental disability, mostly by psychologists — similar words were “dullard,” “dolt” and “feeble-minded.” It was used more often as a colloquialism. “Fool,” however, has not been targeted as an equally offensive word, despite that it was also used historically as slang for a person with a developmental disability, possibly because fool was aimed at any person in the general population who was lacking a bit of common sense.
This word has much more clear offensive implications. It was a medical term used to refer to people who had a thyroid disorder, often due to living in areas where there wasn’t any available iodine in the local diet, which caused some mental disability and was associated with certain facial and physical features. The word “cretin” was actually adapted from the French word for “Christian,” because it reminded people of the humanity of those with this particular disorder.
An unfortunate footnote to this word’s history is how often it was mistakenly used by medical doctors and laymen to describe people with Down Syndrome, since the facial features were similar to those with thyroid disorders. Much like “Mongoloid,” which was equally used to describe people with Down Syndrome based on facial features that were associated with people of Mongolian heritage, obviously an ethnic slur. This word receives less attention today due to the fact that it isn’t used as often as “idiot” or “moron,” but is still listed as an offensive word by the Oxford Dictionary’s blog.
Recently this word has fallen out of favor, with a preference for “physically disabled.” Historically, it was considered to be more appropriate than the word “crippled,” because “handicapped” suggested that the person wasn’t different from others except that they carried an additional burden. However, those with physical disabilities may find the suggestion that they carry a burden to be insulting. Therefore, “persons with physical disabilities,” is preferred because it emphasizes personhood and the fact that the disability is merely one aspect of someone’s life and not the central definition of that person’s character.
Gyp or “gypped”
Many people admit to using this word without knowing its origin, and when they learn that it is an insult to Romani people (“gypsies”), suggesting that a particular ethnic group are dishonest or likely to scam someone out of their money, most people promise to refrain from ever using the word again. However, there are still many efforts to educate people about the offensive origin of this word due to its pervasiveness as a slang term for “conned” or “ripped off.”
The word originated in WWII by British soldiers who used the word “jerry” to refer to Germans. However, there is still some complex history to similar words like “jury rigged” (a sailing reference) or “Jimmy rigged” (possibly in use before WWII) – all of these words are used to describe a botched job, poor workmanship, or fixing something with whatever materials were available. This is a term that is found to be less controversial than some of the others on this list, due to its unclear history and the fact that many people don’t really care if they’re insulting Germans.
While we think this is a harmless term to refer to someone who is suffering from disordered thinking or is confused, it’s not the implications of mental illness that make it controversial. It’s the original use, which can be traced back to WWI, when this term described a soldier returning from war with no arms or legs, and therefore had to be carried in a basket.
I was surprised to find this word listed as an “offensive word based on nationality or ethnicity” by the Macmillan dictionary. White Anglo Saxon Protestants are not usually the victims of institutional or cultural oppression, so it seems a bit odd that it might be considered an offensive slur. However, it does specifically refer to someone’s religion and race, and white protestants seldom use this word to describe themselves. Most common uses are in a hostile context. People who are learning English as a second language are often told to avoid using it.
When used to describe an adult woman, it is considered by some advocates to be sexist. The controversy surrounds the fact that many women do not find it sexist and use the term endearingly toward one another. Those who advocate to ban the word are often met with some resistance from people of all genders.
GLAAD has identified this word’s historical and current relationship with homophobia, and the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “queer” are preferred. This includes especially avoiding the terms “homosexual relationship” or “homosexual agenda.” What’s interesting is that the words gay, lesbian, and queer, while preferred over “homosexual” as a descriptive noun for a person’s sexual orientation, are also offensive when used in the wrong context, such as to describe anything that is unappealing, bad, boring, silly, frivolous or simply “not cool.” In this case, context matters.
Some people at first might not understand why this would be objectionable, but it becomes clear when you look at the word “preference” and realize that it suggests that a person may choose or select their sexual orientation, which we know is not true. “Sexual orientation” is the preferred terminology. GLAAD has more information about appropriate language on their website.
This word is almost always, when used by a white person, insulting. It is hardly ever used in its proper context, such as “the Jewish ghettos of Vienna in the 17th century,” but rather used to describe something dirty, or a crime-ridden area of poverty, and is almost always associated with black or other minority neighborhoods. To use “ghetto” as an adjective is the most offensive form of the word. Used as a noun in the proper context, it may be the correct term. Many people, most of them white, still insist that they have no racist intentions when using this word, which makes it one of the most controversial on this list.
The word “paddy” is a derogatory term for Irish people (derived from St. Patrick). Many police officers used to be Irish, so this term was entered into common slang when someone was arrested and put in the back of the police van or wagon.
This word is directly related to the spiritual practices of Native Americans. However, it is very often used by people who are not familiar with its origins to mean something one relates to deeply or that represents someone’s personality or taste. “The Daily Mail is my Spirit Animal,” is a way of saying that the Daily Mail is your favorite website that you take inspiration from (yes, I have heard someone actually say this about the Daily Mail). However, given the history of appropriation of Native American culture by white people, it is probably a good idea to steer clear of using this word without the proper context.
A less obvious offensive term to most people, the history behind the grandfather clause directly refers to denying black people the right to vote. Although today the term is much more general and is used to describe special preference or allowances for those who would otherwise not be eligible for something (“you missed the deadline, but we’ll allow you in under the grandfather clause since you applied years ago,”) it originally meant that if your grandfather could vote, you could vote as well. This was used as an excuse to exclude black people from voting, or more specifically, to allow white people to vote even though they had not met standard eligibility requirements.
Drink the Kool-Aid
Including any use of the word “Kool-Aid” when indicating that someone has adopted or accepted the ideas or doctrine of a group without putting much forethought into it (“Oh you watch Fox News? How does that Kool-Aid taste?”) I was surprised to see this listed on the Oxford Dictionary blog as an offensive term. However, given its history – referring to the mass suicide and murder of the members of The People’s Temple, who drank poisoned Kool-Aid and gave it to their children under instruction by cult leader Jim Jones – it has the potential to offend someone. It has only recently come to my attention that the phrase could be considered mocking or disrespectful to the people who died tragically in 1978.
The discussions and controversy surrounding the right to use these words continue, especially on Internet forums, and it’s unlikely that we’re going to see common slang like “crazy” or “idiot” removed from the general lexicon any time soon. But understanding the tragic history behind certain common terminology can only enhance our ability to express ourselves clearly.
There are many other words that people find offensive that have not been listed here. If you use these words or want to defend or reject them, let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below.