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Disclaimer: Not strictly English language question, but still a question on language use

I've just had a discussion with a member, who argued that the word "lunatic" is offensive and therefore should not be used, not even to address an actual lunatic, e.g. a mentally ill person. And if I type "lunatic" in Google, it tells me that it is a mentally ill person. Does that mean Google offends mentally ill people by telling me that's what a lunatic is? Or maybe Google has the right to use it, but not me?

In that logic, if I call a person a "dog" this is obviously offensive, therefore following that logic strictly, that word should not be used, not even to address an actual dog. Does this mean black people offend each other by calling their buddies "dog"? And that is just an example, imagination is pretty much the only limit when counting the words which can be put in an offensive context.

Another example, it has recently become offensive to call a retarded person retarded, the correct term is now "special needs", but how long before "special needs" becomes an insult too, which it inevitably will if it becomes the widely used term to refer to retarded people? "Special needs" can actually be offensive right out of the box, if used to address a non-retarded person and imply that person is retarded, and one can argue that in a way, using that word to insult a normal person is also insensitive and offensive to all "special needs" people in existence?

And how come it doesn't even matter what kind of a context a word is being put in or whether offense is actually intended? Will this continue until half of the vocabulary is squeezed out of use and labeled implicitly offensive, even if explicitly stated to not be intended as such?

Last but not least, are we doing anyone a favor by labeling more and more words as "offensive" and therefore granting previously inoffensive words the power to offend? I mean, if it is "inconsiderate assholes" who turn normal words into insults, how "smart" is it for the rest of the people to give in to that?

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the case is one where a word used to refer to a group of people which in fact enjoys low social status takes on a pejorative sense. some groups are so bad off that descriptive terms become pejorative the year after they are introduced (and the scrupulously non-offensive may disagree on what's at the vanguard). there is nothing you can do about this. if you really feel a need to discuss, say, the mentally ill online, then either (i) talk like clinicians; (ii) paint all your remarks as being about an afflicted family member whom you love; or (iii) constantly accuse others of being offensive. –  jlovegren Feb 7 at 13:10

2 Answers 2

And how come it doesn't even matter what kind of a context a word is being put in or whether offense is actually intended? Will this continue until half of the vocabulary is squeezed out of use and labeled implicitly offensive, even if explicitly stated to not be intended as such?

It always matters in which context a word is used, which is exactly why words can become offensive. If lunatic would only have been used in a medical context, it is hardly likely the offensive connotation would have come into being. However, it is easy to use a word for someone with a mental handicap to describe someone who acts in a sub-intelligent way. The moment that happens, we start using the medical term as an insult, and thus, it will get offensive connotations.

The nice thing is that we simply extend vocabulary so you do not have to worry about us running out of words :)

Last but not least, are we doing anyone a favor by labeling more and more words as "offensive" and therefore granting previously inoffensive words the power to offend?

It has nothing to do with labelling.

When a word tends to get used in offensive ways, it is a simply observation that it is being used in such a way. And once people get used to the offensive connotations of a word, it makes sense not to use it any more when we do not want to offend someone.

It seems that the effect you describe only (or mainly?) goes for people, that is to say, if a doctor gives a name to an illness or disease (e.g. "mongoloid" for Down syndrome), once "mongol" got applied as an offensive word, I don't see why it would make sense to insist on continuing to refer to people with the Down syndrome like that. Mostly because the offensive term usually gets a much wider meaning than the original. (The offensive "mongol" implies invariably extremely low brain capacity for instance, which is not applicable to all sufferers of Down syndrome).

With dogs this doesn't seem to happen. A female dog is still called a bitch.

Interestingly, though an English example escapes me at the moment, when the word for an animal goes out of use, the (more or less) offensive nickname for people that derives from it might also disappear - presumably because the link to the original no longer is understood. In Dutch this happened for instance with "kapoen", an "ex-male" chicken. The word was used to describe rowdy boys, but it got out of use, as did the word to designate the incomplete chicken.

Overall, yes. A lot of words that are acceptable today will go out of fashion and even become in some cases unacceptable. Maybe because they change into an offensive meaning, maybe because they get associated with something unsavoury by chance or design (not language, but look what happened to a Hindu symbol representing eternity...).

This is not something to be worried about, it happens all the time, and we will not run out of words. I promise.

Edit:

Surely, you can always come up with new words, but why bother? Can we instead simple not allow to spoil words this way?

If you can come up with a way to prevent people from using the language (any language!) in the way they see fit, be my guest! You will certainly gain great popularity with the prescriptive tribe of the linguist population, but I suspect your battle is lost before you start it.

There is nobody who thinks it's fun to sit around and designate a word as offensive. It is something that happens because the users of the language decide to use the language in that way. I dare say that any attempt to change that behaviour is doomed from the start.

(Yes, come in, IT-crowd, with your analogies to your users, who also mess up whatever you give them!)

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Surely, you can always come up with new words, but why bother? Can we instead simple not allow to spoil words this way? So, today I cannot use the official scientific term "negroid" because some redneck hick decided to derive an insult from it? It just doesn't seem the smart thing to do. –  ddriver Feb 7 at 12:55
    
smart? Who do you think "decided" this? It's the users of a language that decide on how to use it. For some, that is a never-ending source of frustration :) –  oerkelens Feb 7 at 13:03
    
On a side note, I know plenty of nice girls who don't mind being referred to as "bitches" :) I even suspect they like it. I guess only a real "bitch" will be offended by the term because she knows it is true :) –  ddriver Feb 7 at 13:05
    
Wat een oen ;) . –  mplungjan Feb 7 at 13:06
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@ddriver: that is a very dangerous guess... –  oerkelens Feb 7 at 13:12

Words become offensive in a few overlapping ways.

They may relate to something that is already thought less of. Sometimes it would be something only thought less of in particular contexts; most of us don't think particularly poorly of dogs, beasts, or cows but we do generally consider some of the traits that humans have that they do not to be valuable in humans.

They can relate to something once thought less of. Most people today really don't care whether or not someone was born in wedlock or not, but bastard remains an insult from having acquired been used in a way similar to the previous case at a time when people did.

They can combine these with an unease in talking about sexual matters, so calling someone a dick or a cunt combines the point about dogs and cows above (I very much like genitals, but I do consider them to be lacking valuable traits possessed by whole persons) with a salacious focus upon the sexual. Related are those relating to scatological matters, making shit, piece of piss, and asshole similarly offensive.

They can get strengthened through use by those of particular opinions; if a white person calls a black person a n****er, then we pretty much know that they're a racist. As such, not only do we have the history of that term expressed, but we have the gamut of racist opinion behind that instance expressed.

This can be one of the things that makes words offensive in context; if someone calls me queer while we discuss sexual politics and queer theory, I'm going to take zero offence from it. If someone calls me queer when it's irrelevant, or they are otherwise saying otherwise uncomplimentary things about me (even if those other uncomplimentary things are fair points) or is being generally negative about gays and bisexuals, I'm going to know there was offence in it.

They can be offensive by referencing negative views thought of others; "inside-out n****er" takes a racist view of black people and puts certain white people in the same category, so insulting both. "Special needs" can take the low view many people have of the mentally disabled and apply it to neuronormative people, and so insult both. Many words referring to women or girls are used as insults for men, applying a misogynist attitude so as to insult the targeted man as well as insulting all women. And so on.

Words can be offensive by their careless inaccuracy. "Retard" is not a useful word for describing mental disability, and so would only be used by someone with at least such low regard for people with mental disabilities as to dismiss them and therefore not use a more accurate term.

Similarly, if someone has a disability, that will certainly handicap them in certain ways, though societal and technological differences in different situations will strongly affect that degree of handicap whether adding to it (at the most extreme, in active persecution and murder) or reducing it (at the most extreme, in making it irrelevant in practice; consider how handicapped a person with extreme myopia would be in a hunter-gatherer society compared to one in which their eyesight can be corrected to 20-20 with glasses or contact lenses). Describing the person themselves as handicapped applies to them as a person what is not part of them as a person.

Inaccuracy can also be held to obstinately. If someone said I was heterosexual I'd consider that they were just making a foolish assumption since I'm in a straight relationship and have children from a previous straight relationship, it's a likely enough possibility. If someone insisted in calling me heterosexual when informed I am bisexual, then they are claiming that either I am liar or that they have a better idea of what it is to be me than I do, or quite likely both, which someone would only say to express contempt for me.

Last but not least, are we doing anyone a favor by labeling more and more words as "offensive" and therefore granting previously inoffensive words the power to offend?

Well, there's a difference between labelling a word as offensive, and describing it as such.

The reality is that words are used to offend. It is also the case that words are used with strong carelessness and that offends.

The idea that of Lenny Bruce's "Are there any n****ers here tonight?" skit, that if we all just used all the words all the time without meaning offence then the offence would be taken out of them is essentially true.

But:

  1. We would have to convince all the bigots not to use them in preference to other terms. They will not agree.

  2. We'd have to find everyone who has lived with the experience of having them used hatefully toward them, often alongside much worse acts that anything being spoken, and give them an intensive course of psychological reconditioning so that the word no longer had any such associations for them. Good luck with that.

  3. We'd have to either fix the language so that as well as all nuance having been lost, none was ever gained, and different groups didn't favour one term over another. Or else wipe all bigotry from the world, as well as from the language, so that such natural changes in the language never reflected a bigoted opinion.

In other words, we'd have to already start from a position in which nobody would be using offensive terms anyway.

For that matter, "offence" isn't particularly important. There's a million worse things than being offended and sometimes being offended is a good thing (I find it offensive that there are people in my country who can't afford a place to live; obviously I'd rather not find that offensive due to it not happening, but if it continued to happen and I stopped finding it offensive then I have become less in this, not gained).

What's important is that the offensiveness happens alongside other things, from micro-aggressions like being the person who isn't quite listened to or who is followed around by security guards through lack of access to education, housing and career opportunities, to an increased risk of suffering violence.

Recently RTÉ paid out a sum to a group of people who took offence at being called homophobes, and well maybe they were genuinely offended (though it's interesting to note that they insisted that the money be paid to them rather than to a charity), but if so they were genuinely offended middle-class white straight people who could marry whoever they wanted to marry and were unlikely to ever get beaten up because of which bar they were seen leaving. A good case could be made that for saying it doesn't really matter how offended the money-grabbing little shits were.

Really, offence isn't a terrible thing on its own, but it often isn't on its own.

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I want to say +1 for "I very much like genitals, but I do consider them to be lacking valuable traits possessed by whole persons" but the truth is I was going to +1 this anyway :) –  starsplusplus Feb 7 at 14:29
    
I very much like your inside out paragraph. Explains something very nicely that we are all familiar with but that I for one would have had trouble explaining concisely why it offended both the one being insulted and the group of people it's normally used to refer to. Calling a person, thing or activity "gay" would be another example of this. (I mean when meant in a derogative way, obviously: "_________'s so gay!") –  starsplusplus Feb 7 at 14:32
    
Who are RTÉ and do you have a link to this report/event? I'd be interested to read more. –  starsplusplus Feb 7 at 14:36
    
@starsplusplus the inverse of it, is that some have argued that because that term was applied to some white immigrants to the US (esp. from mainly Catholic countries like Ireland, Poland, and Italy) it means they were just as discriminated against as black people. But when you consider its meaning it shows that its very use assumes a context in which black people are already discriminated against. RTÉ are Ireland's national broadcaster. Do a search for "Panti's nobel call" to catch how one of Ireland's theatre traditions was used to reply to it, and follow links from there for the background. –  Jon Hanna Feb 7 at 14:40
    
The actual "inside out" thing I'd not heard before, but the other two examples rang very true for me. Am reading about Panti's noble call now - thanks for the tip. –  starsplusplus Feb 7 at 14:48

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