English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I am involved with a group that works with children aged about 7, who've been through some difficult things. One of the sessions focuses on how "every one of you is special".

Recently, somebody's teenaged son pointed out that in his school the word "special" is used as an insult. I guess it refers to being special-needs.

Is this use common-place? Is there a better alternative that we could use?

share|improve this question
1  
"Well, yes, I am a mom. My kids are very special. So special, they go to special classes." GTA-VC – mbx Jul 27 '11 at 8:08
    
You might try individual – Hagen von Eitzen Feb 23 at 18:57
up vote 9 down vote accepted

From my experience in American English special is, sometimes, used negatively to indicate that someone is a person with special needs. If you're afraid that the children you work with may realize that "special" can be an insult, I would suggest some alternatives:

  • unique: to indicate that every one of the children you work with is positively special in that they are the only one of their kind
  • exceptional: to indicate that each child is exceeding the ordinary (in the sense that they are special because they are not just like everybody else)
  • extraordinary
  • amazing
share|improve this answer
4  
But that would give only temporary relief: the great treadmill of euphemisms will keep on rolling until your new euphemism has become an insult, etc. etc. – Cerberus Jul 27 '11 at 15:53
    
Temporary relief is the best we can hope for. – Urbycoz Jul 28 '11 at 7:31
5  
Unique is good, but exceptional, extraordinary, and amazing just fuel the euphemism problem by taking words that are usually positive-only and applying them diffeently. Every person is unique and you can talk to kids about that, but, sorry, not every person is exceptional or amazing. – Monica Cellio Jul 28 '11 at 14:07
    
@Cerberus: There will always be euphemisms, and there will always be words that are used to mean their opposite — for example, "Good job!" or "Well, that was really clever," said in a sarcastic tone of voice, will readily be recognized as insults (as appropriate). But the word "special" has been institutionalized to mean handicapped/disabled by the Special Olympics and terms like special education. I don't expect any other compliment to become widely recognized as pejorative without similar institutional help. – Scott Mar 5 at 23:51
1  
@Scott: I'm not sure why you say "compliment". But I don't see why any word can't become widely used (although I think a great number of people object to this "special")? Cf. nice. At any rate, institutions often adopt words that are already used by people, and people somehow love taboo language that requires euphemisms. So the treadmill rolls on. Besides, large organisations are not exactly known for the quality of their language. – Cerberus Mar 6 at 0:32

Special is probably the best example of the "euphemistic cycle"; a term coined as a euphemism for another term with more negative connotation eventually comes to have the same negative connotation.

"Special education" is the usual U.S. term for the department of a public school that works with children with severe learning or mental disabilities. The term uses the word "special" in its original definition of "unique" or "different", as a euphemism to replace terms used previously such as "slow class" or "MR class". Over time, the term "special" came to be used as a descriptor for the children themselves, and that, over time, led to the negative connotation; calling someone "special" is now most often taken sarcastically to mean that the person is mentally disabled in some way.

share|improve this answer

Words like "special" and "exceptional" used to be (pretty-unambiguously) positive but now can also be negative because of the tendency to use them to refer to people (usually kids) who are below average in some way. "Special needs" usually refers to some sort of handicap, which is perceived as a limitation, hence negative. I'm not judging this, just explaining it.

Because people who work with special-needs kids try to never use a word that could sound negative, but people in the rest of society will still sometimes perceive these kids' situations negatively, you will get sarcastic uses of the previously-positive words, introducing ambiguity. ("Wait, is this 'exceptional' kid gifted or learning-disabled?")

You can usually tell by context. It's pretty common (in my experience) to hear somebody describe some negative situation with "oh how special", but the tone of voice tells you what is meant. The positive meanings are also still in use, so you have to look for context.

share|improve this answer
    
You will usually find euphemisms coined that differentiate from the use of the term. I most often hear the term "exceptional" from your example in the positive sense, but "marginally exceptional" carries the negative. You're right, though, any word that carries the connotation of "singling out" the subject can be positive or negative, depending on the reason behind their being singled out. – KeithS Jul 27 '11 at 18:30
    
I saw the same thing with "Reactive" - it was at first used to explain that a patient's angry responses were a reaction to something, even if the nurse thought they were out of line, to put the nurse in the patients shoes. It now means "inappropriate and angry" in most medical contexts. This is just something that happens when you try to use a nice word to describe something that others find not-nice. – Kate Gregory Jul 27 '11 at 21:15
2  
Not to mention the highly publicized Special Olympics. That's when I first heard it as an insult. – Kalamane Jul 27 '11 at 21:56

The negative meaning of special is one of the jokes in The Simpsons associated with the character Ralph Wiggum.

It also gets a slightly different negative twist in an American Football episode where Ralph is not good enough to be allowed to play much

Ned Flanders: Ralph, you'll be on special teams.

Ralph Wiggum: I'm special!

share|improve this answer

Definitely, "special" has a negative connotation. In the school I used to go to, there were students who were mentally or physically disabled. This students were given special attention, that is they went to classes that were made easier to understand, and were given more medical attention etc. This students were called the special students. It turns out that the word special started to be used as an insult, such as the following conversation:

a: "What on earth did you do that for?"
b: "I didn't mean it! It was an accident."
a: "That's only cause you're special!"

Thus, as you can see, "special" became used in a very negative way, intending to imply that the person was mentally or physically disabled.

share|improve this answer

Any word can be an insult. We are good at doing that in the US. However the word itself is not derogatory, vulgar, or demeaning. The use of it negatively here is almost an hidden taunt. It is said in a way that that the words infer a good thing, but the manner in which it is said infers it is a bad thing. The power of the insult is all in how it is taken. For more on dealing with this I would consut the Parenting SE.

share|improve this answer

Special means (among other things) "better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual."
"Different from what it is usual" can be used also in pejorative way.

share|improve this answer

Dana Carvey's Church Lady character used to also use the phrase "Isn't that special" to accentuate the end of a bit.

share|improve this answer

Originally someone from the US South, or Virginia's and Mid-West, would use the term "very special" to indicate someone who is crazy. It is still very common usage, and has nothing to do with retarded people or those with physical limitations or handicaps. It would be a rarity for an adult to refer to any child as "very special." It can be used to describe someone who is crazy, without directly offending, because it is understood to be the talkers' interpretation of the person being talked about. If offense was intended, the word used to describe them would be "crazy."

share|improve this answer

protected by tchrist Mar 6 at 2:37

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.