….Will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Except that’s not true at all, is it?
Words have a great power to harm, either intentionally or accidentally. Whether it’s a well-chosen barb, an unfortunate nickname, or a phrase taken the wrong way, words are definitely capable of inflicting pain.
Perhaps even worse are words and phrases with sinister origins, insults that come from denigrating someone’s disability, mental capacity, or stability. Some of these words are so ingrained on our language, we don’t even recognize them for they are. Words like lame, stupid, idiot, mental, and psycho all reinforce the idea that deviating from “normal” is worthy of derision.
Now, if you’re like me, your first instinct might be to resist. But it’s just a word. I use it all the time. It’s too hard to change.
But language is constantly evolving, as are the people who use it.
Don’t believe me? When I was a kid, “retarded” was a pretty standard schoolyard insult for everything we didn’t like, from people to TV shows to shoelaces. You probably winced reading that just now. I know I cringed when I typed it. In just thirty years that one word has gone from a common insult to a scandalous word. I’d bet my kids have never even heard it. (As it should be.)
So it can happen.
As writers, I think we have a responsibility, not only to do no harm with our words, but to act as agents of change. If we all filtered these ableist words out of our work, maybe they’d slowly disappear from language as a whole.
But, if the idea of eliminating these words for the sake of others isn’t enough motivation for you, then consider it a writing challenge. When I deleted “stupid” and “lame” from my YA (I hate to admit how many instances there were, since I tend to channel teenage me while writing YA) I was forced to come up with much more inventive and descriptive insults to replace them. I’d gotten lazy with my adjectives, and having to change them, made my writing stronger.
Maybe if we all work hard enough at removing ableist language from our work, in time books that include these words will be looked at the same way we’d look at a book using the R-word today, as outdated and insensitive relics from a harsher time.
I shudder at some of the words I used as kid, before I understood the history behind them.