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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?

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"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
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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
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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
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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
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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.

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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.

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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
    
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
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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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