And it made me think about words and their etymologies. If you know me, you may know me as “the guy who likes etymology.” I’m pretty into it. And so of course I already know the etymology of lame (as in a person with a physical handicap), retarded (as in a person with a mental handicap), dumb (a mute), and I know the problems with crazy and its synonyms, and while I’m less sympathetic to them, I am aware of the problems with dumb and its synonyms.The problem arises when you look at the suggestions. A lot of them are good and useful, but a few of them also have really problematic pasts.For instance, “.”
badBad? What? How could “bad” possibly be offensive? (aside from to the person you’re calling bad). Well, “bad” comes from the Old English “bæddel”, which meant, basically, “faggot” or “gay”, when used as a noun or adjective, respectively.So this produces a strange dilemma in my mind. First off, sure, I’d like to use words according to their etymology. That produces a richer and more precise language. Saying that someone has a “gargantuan” appetite is more amusing if you know that “gargantuan” comes from the giant Gargantua, who had an enormous mouth, and was so named for the Old French “gargole” meaning throat, from the Latin “gula”, also meaning throat. Or if you know that “concur” comes from the Latin “concurrere” which means both “to run alongside” and “to fight”, then the precise modern usage meaning “I agree with your conclusion, but for a different reason” makes sense, and that’s a really useful word to have! Similarly, “retard”, from the Latin “retardare”, meaning to delay or hold back, is a useful word! I enjoy saying that, for instance, “Republicans are retarding legislature”, because it gets both the etymological root meaning (they’re holding it back) and the modern pejorative meaning (they’re making it dumber). I find that useful.So on the one hand, useful words. On the other hand, hurting people’s feelings. I’m not sure what the proper solution is. My instinct is to try to come up with a rule that lets us decide about words, though all the simple rules would either include everything or ban “bad”, which doesn’t actually hurt anyone’s feelings.
Then I remember that I’m a consequentialist, and coming up for rules is for suckers and deontologists. So I’ll just base my usage on what the consequences of it are. “Retarded” as an insult seems to hurt the feelings of the mentally handicapped more than the people I’m trying to insult, so I won’t use that one. There’s no need for a big overarching law, I can just figure it out on a case by case basis, and update when I hear new things.