Watch your mouth

Derogatory speech leads to disparaging actions

Graphic by Bram Keast

The concept of linguistic relativism—despite infiltrating the disciplines of cognitive psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy—has yet to reach the paradigm of everyday discourse. Also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the theory postulates that the language spoken by an individual in turn affects the way they think and conceptualize the world around them.

The language we use creates a framework for the way we process other information, as well as perceive situations and individuals, which makes sense. Language is the way in which we communicate, converse, and express ourselves. Therefore, this means of expression is bound to actively affect our cognitions.

What happens, then, when our language is infused with derogatory terms and offensive slang?

Mental disorders are being used as adjectives, misogynistic and androcentric terms are being used to convey weakness or inferiority, and homophobic words are being used as insults. The popularization of this language sets the stage for an abhorrent society. The more we conceptualize these words in harmful ways, the more we perpetuate the stigmatization of these people.

When did “retardation” mutate from a clinical description to a term of derogation? The original introduction of “mental retardation” as a medical term was to signify an individual with profound intellectual disabilities who was virtually unable to survive unassisted. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), this intellectual disability was demarcated by an IQ result of approximately two standard deviations below the general population, which equates to around 70. The DSM also outlines the effect the disorder has on conceptual, social, and practical domains.

The DSM has removed the term “mental retardation” from the latest publication in 2013.

The replacement of the clinical term with “intellectual developmental disorder” reflects several changes of the way in which society uses the word and other pejorative forms of it, such as “retard” or “retarded.” The use of these terms marginalizes individuals who suffer from intellectual disabilities, bolsters societal stigmatization, and contributes to harmful stereotypes.

The popularization of mental disorders as adjectives spreads far beyond the r-word. People who are not as happy as usual refer to themselves as depressed, people experiencing mood swings claim to be bipolar, and people feeling fidgety refer to themselves as having ADHD. Not only is this use of these medical terms inaccurate, it also alienates individuals with the disorder, leads to further denunciation of mental disorders, and paints faulty stereotypes.

It also presents mental disorders a joke. An individual with major depressive disorder lives a significantly different life than someone who cracked the back of their phone and is now “depressed.” The hyperbolizing of situations—as we so often do in our society—is offensive to people living in that situation. You are showing firstly, that you do not understand what they are going through, and secondly, that you do not take it seriously.

Ironically, though many platforms have been established to help stop the stigmatization of mental disorders, the usage of the language has never been higher. It does not matter that you tweeted “#BellLetsTalk” if you turn around the next day saying, “I’m so OCD.” Using OCD in this manner trivializes the legitimacy of what other people are experiencing.

Unfortunately, using the living situation of an individual as derogatory slang extends to realms beyond mental illness.

Despite movement towards equality, it is still an alarmingly common practice to use misogynistic and androcentric language as insults to convey weakness or inferiority. These terms and phrases range from “You throw like a girl” to “Stop acting like a girl,” and everyone knows what you mean when you refer to someone this way.

I think part of the issue is that the English language is designed in an androcentric manner. There are numerous “gender neutral” pronouns that are nowhere near egalitarian status; think “mankind” or “fireman.” This vocabulary that is engrained into our language favours males. In addition, as a society, we do not simply call all individuals working in the field of theatre “actors,” we ostracize the women in this field by calling them “actresses.” The suffixes added imply inferiority and belittle the women they are applied to; they are almost actors in their own right, but not quite.

We also lack a grammatically correct word to encompass “he or she” in the English language. Thus, the latter often gets dropped for the sake of convenience and laziness.

This primes us for a society in which masculinity is considered synonymous with strength and logic, and femininity with weakness and emotionality. Even the association of women with nature, such as “Mother Nature,” contributes to this perception by paralleling women with primitiveness and thereby distancing them from logic.

These stereotypical representations are then further embedded into societal perception when we continue to use being female as an insult. The more females are represented as inferior and emotionally reactive, the more we perpetuate an androcentric and patriarchal society.

The same goes for use of derogatory terms referring to LGBTTQ* people, especially when these terms are so often used to describe someone doing something unintelligent or not agreeable. Calling someone “queer” for not wanting to participate in a given event contributes to the marginalization of homosexual individuals.

The term “faggot,” or “fag,” etymologically originates from a term meaning “bundle of sticks.” This was applied to male homosexuals because they used to be burned at the stake, because being homosexual was a capital offence. It has extremely strong connotations of execution, and yet is tossed into everyday language as though it means nothing.

The issue is that the use of these words has become habitual. We throw them into conversation without realizing their harmful effects or offensive connotations. We have become so used to these disparaging terms that we do not bat an eye, which I think speaks volumes about our behaviour as a society.

Calling your friend a “retard” when they forgot their phone at home, telling your teammate that they “throw like a girl,” and referring to someone as a “fag” is not acceptable. Yet we use these words and wonder why the world is so hostile. Inhospitable thoughts lead to inhospitable behaviour. To create a more inclusive society, we need to create a more inclusive language.