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Specifically, if I'm using it in a self-deprecating manner? As in, 'binge watching Netflix may be dumb, but it's my guilty pleasure.'

My questions are:

  1. Has the original usage referring to deaf or mute worn off?
  2. Am I right in thinking the common usage today refers to something that is not serious or significant?
  3. Does dumb carry the same PC baggage that stupid or retarded carry even when they aren't used in a hurtful way?
  • That's not offensive at all. If you were to say '... may be dumb, but it's your guilty pleasure.' That would be offensive. 'I may be an ass for watching netflix' is slightly offensive. Likewise 'boring' might be taken as offense for someone else. 'Tall' would not be offensive in either. – Mitch Aug 25 '15 at 19:27
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    @Mitch Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that the querent was asking about potential contention around dumb being a general insult and dumb meaning mute, unable to speak. Disability is a touchy subject. – Anonym Aug 25 '15 at 19:41
  • @Anonym that makes sense, but it is not in the OP at all. Rishi can you clarify what you mean by offensive? Is it because 'dumb' might be confused for a disability? – Mitch Aug 25 '15 at 21:12
  • Yes let me add to that 1.) Has the original usage referring to deaf or mute worn off? 2.) Am I right in thinking the common usage today refers to something that is not serious or significant? 3.) Does dumb carry the same PC baggage that stupid or retarded carry even when they aren't used in a hurtful way? – Rishi Aug 26 '15 at 1:12
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The question "Is the word 'dumb' offensive?" invites a question in response: "To whom?" To a great many English-speaking people, dumb most certainly is not offensive, making it an entirely suitable word to use in their presence. To a substantial number of other people, it occupies some point on a continuum of inappropriateness ranging from mildly thoughtless to deeply offensive. And to yet another group of people, it may seem laughably mild, watered-down, or euphemistic, so that using it may subject you to ridicule for your Goody Two-shoes/Mr. Rogers vocabulary.

What people are you talking to? How do they feel about so-called politically correct speech? What are their vocabulary choices like?

Historically, English speakers have used many words that originated as descriptive terms for physical or mental disability, limited mental capacity, or lack of education as all-purpose insult terms: dumb, lame, blind, crazy, lunatic, stupid, idiotic, moronic, imbecilic, brain-dead, ignorant, illiterate. The reason these words seem so natural to us is that we've used many of them since childhood—far less often to invidiously deprecate people who actually possess or suffer from the conditions that the words formally describe than to frame an expression of general disagreement, disapproval, or dislike.


Help from the dictionary

The relevant definitions of dumb that consecutive editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series offer show considerable movement in the meanings of the word over the past half-century. Here are the relevant definitions. From the Seventh Collegiate (1963):

dumb adj 6 : STUPID, FOOLISH

From the Eighth Collegiate (1973):

dumb adj 6 : markedly lacking in intelligence : exasperatingly obtuse

From the Ninth Collegiate (1983):

dumb adj 6 a : markedly lacking in intelligence : STUPID b : showing a lack of intelligence {the omission seems dumb and irresponsible —Eliot Fremonr-Smith}

From the Tenth Collegiate (1993):

dumb adj 6 a : markedly lacking in intelligence : STUPID b : showing a lack of intelligence c : having little or no meaning — sometimes used in the phrase dumb luck

usage There is evidence that, when applied to persons who cannot speak, dumb has come to be considered offensive.

From the Eleventh Collegiate (2003):

dumb adj 6 a : lacking intelligence : STUPID b : showing a lack of intelligence {asking dumb questions} c : requiring no intelligence {dumb luck}

usage There is evidence that, when applied to persons who cannot speak, dumb has come to be considered offensive.

Oddly enough, despite the changes from edition to edition in the reported sixth meaning of dumb, Merriam-Webster's "Synonyms" note, distinguishing dumb from the alternatives stupid, dull, dense, and crass has remained unchanged in wording since at least 1963:

DUMB applies to an exasperating obtuseness or lack of comprehension


A side trip into early major-league baseball

In the late nineteenth century (and on into the twentieth century), people often acquired unflattering nicknames based on their disabilities or perceived weaknesses. Thus, George Waddell, a powerful pitcher with a rural background and somewhat childlike sensibilities was nicknamed "Rube." And William Hoy, an excellent center fielder who was entirely deaf, was nicknamed "Dummy." Hoy's Wikipedia article offers the following remarks on his nickname:

In Hoy's time, the word "dumb" was used to describe someone who could not speak, rather than someone who was stupid; but since the ability to speak was often unfairly connected to one's intelligence, the epithets "dumb" and "dummy" became interchangeable with stupidity. Hoy himself often corrected individuals who addressed him as William, and referred to himself as Dummy. Said to have been able to speak with a voice that resembled a squeak, he was actually one of the most intelligent players of his time ...

Was the nickname "Dummy" offensive? Not to Hoy, apparently. But given that impaired speech "was often unfairly connected to one's intelligence," it isn't hard to see why deaf people and their allies might eventually have decided (in Merriam-Webster's words) "that, when applied to persons who cannot speak, dumb [was] offensive." The question is whether when applied to persons who can speak—and speak fluently—"dumb" is offensive.


Back to the present

Evidently, some people object to the use of dumb to mean "stupid" because it reflects badly on profoundly hearing-impaired and speech-impaired people by implying (intentionally or not) that such impairment equates to stupidity. Other people, I imagine, oppose the use of any word that means "stupid" because such a word is (or at least can be) hurtful to the person thus described. On the other side are a vast number of people who consider dumb to be a very mild word of criticism and who in any case argue that the world is full of mean people saying mean things, so we shouldn't go into contortions over dumb, regardless of its pedigree.

The underlying dispute here is much too complicated and emotionally charged to be resolvable in an EL&U question-and-answer format. My advice is to use your own judgment about what potentially offensive words to include in your everyday vocabulary, taking into account three things:

  1. The attitudes and sensitivities of the people you are talking to and talking about.

  2. The particular words for expressing negative opinions and critical ideas that you, personally, find unobjectionable.

  3. The awkwardness (if any) that you might feel if a word that you habitually use were to pop out at an inopportune moment.

These are basically the same considerations that many people weigh in their choice and frequency of use of swear words/obscenities. There are no fixed rules that apply across all socioeconomic groups and circumstances. Appropriateness is circumstantial and situational. Ultimately you have to decide what works for you.

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This operates at several levels. Technically "dumb" means "unable/unwilling to speak", and at one time hearing-impaired people were said to be "deaf and dumb" since they (supposedly) couldn't speak. "Dumb" meaning "stupid" thus comes from this belief that deaf people were of low intelligence.

Understandably, the hearing-impaired community did not like this highly prejudicial association and hence were not happy with any use of the term "dumb" (especially when a substantial fraction of deaf people were in fact able to speak).

However, I believe that attitudes have softened somewhat, as deafness has become less of a cause of prejudice and segregation, and as people have gotten to the point where they don't immediately associate "dumb" with deafness. So, as stated elsewhere, the term may be offensive to some people, but is not so generally.

(Extra credit: Where did the term "dumbbell" come from?)

  • I thought "deaf and dumb" was always distinct in meaning from merely "deaf." I guess you're saying that the word "dumb" was often applied incorrectly, but in principle I'd expect "deaf and dumb" to refer to someone who actually can't speak (either for physical, psychological or educational reasons), rather than just being a longer way of saying "deaf." – sumelic Aug 25 '15 at 23:54
  • @sumelic - It was long assumed that totally deaf people couldn't speak. If you were deaf it was assumed that you were "dumb". – Hot Licks Aug 26 '15 at 0:26
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    @HotLicks people born deaf (or who have been deaf for a long time) often have trouble articulating because they have no verbal associations. They can't hear their own voice, they have no way of telling whether what their vocal cords produce is speech. Also, historically, deaf people are often less educated simply because most education was completely aural, and they could not hear instructions... – jwenting Aug 26 '15 at 6:58
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    @jwenting - Correct. It wasn't until some enlightened folks such as Alexander Graham Bell started to teach the deaf to speak (and lip read) that deaf people began to be treated as intellectually competent. (And, of course, Helen Keller helped the cause quite a bit.) But even now, people who are totally deaf from birth have difficulty learning language, since they're not exposed to it as infants, and the necessary brain structures are never fully formed. – Hot Licks Aug 26 '15 at 11:42
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I will answer for U.S. English.

1.) Has the original usage referring to deaf or mute worn off?

Yes.

2.) Am I right in thinking the common usage today refers to something that is not serious or significant?

Yes.

3.) Does dumb carry the same PC baggage that stupid or retarded carry even when they aren't used in a hurtful way?

No.

In my experience, no one uses dumb to mean mute any more.

Dumb carries the same connotations as stupid nowadays.

  • As a British person, I am of course aware of the American usage of 'dumb' meaning 'stupid', but I would not think of it as the primary meaning of the word. Maybe it's a generational thing. I notice Americanisms becoming more common among younger speakers. – Kate Bunting May 4 '17 at 9:55
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    @KateBunting - In my experience of U.S. English, "stupid" is indeed the primary meaning of the word nowadays. I have no idea about U.K. English. – aparente001 May 5 '17 at 23:05
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The simplest answer is, Yes, it will be offensive to SOMEbody. Offensiveness is a broad and entirely subjective concept. It is molded by societal standards, personal experiences, and self-esteem levels, to name just a few things. For example, that phrase would not be at all offensive to me, but that's just me. Best you can do, in my experience, is steer clear of things you know to be offensive to the people you are with, and respond graciously when somebody is offended by things you didn't mean to offend with.

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