Pejorative Language 7.15

By Emerson Dickman

Pejorative Language and Legislation


Word meaning is what we imagine it to be.  As a result, word meaning changes as our perspectives mature.  T.S. Eliot said, “last year's words belong to last year's language.”  In a discussion with Rick Lavoie, a man that I greatly admire, he made the simple yet powerful point that, “the connotation of a word is dependent on the social context.”  The focus of our discussion was the influence of words often used in the field in which we share an interest; the representation of persons challenged by disability.  The old retort to verbal bullying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” is somewhat oxymoronic since it would not need saying if it was true.  A contrary opinion was expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre who commented that, “Words are loaded pistols.” and Rudyard Kipling who said, “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.”


One of the least understood variables in quantifying a word like “disability” and evaluating the meaning of descriptive words such as “assault,” “humiliated,” “disparaged,” “cruel,” “unfair,” “abused,” and so many others that are dimensional (i.e., from mild to severe) in nature is the social consequence ascribed to the specific situation involved.  Some neurobiologically based deficits that, in the past, had such a significant social consequence that they were considered disabling might have been sense of direction, reflexes, and the ability to run fast.  Context is everything.  A white alligator is rare because, in the wild, its color makes it an easy victim at a young age and, therefore, disabled.  However, in an environment that lacks the usual predators it stands out as beautiful, powerful, and superior.


All of the terms that we discussed (e.g., retarded, moron, idiot, mongoloid) had medical and legal meaning in the not so distant past.  When Dicky my oldest child was born, the doctor informed me that Georgette had given birth to a “mongoloid;” not a boy or a girl, but a “mongoloid.”  Only later did I discover the handsome little boy that was a blessing, an incomparable joy, and was destined to influence so many lives for the better.  A little off topic, but the point is that any word or phrase used to describe a condition that society has designated as somehow different or inferior will eventually become pejorative and seek to be avoided.


The answer perhaps is not to be concerned about the terms that are used, but to do what we can to change how society values those who are intended to be identified by such terms.  Remember when “made in Japan” was intended to demean the quality of anything to which it was intended to apply?  Then along came Sony and Toyota and “made in Japan” lost its pejorative connotation.


In the case of guardianships the legislature in New Jersey responded to the concerns of advocates that the term “incompetent” had a pejorative connotation by replacing the term “incompetent” with “incapacitated;” which is totally incomprehensible.  The term “incapacitated” refers to a dimensional construct that has little or no meaning outside of a particular context.  Every human being in the world is “incapacitated” in some context.  For instance, I am not musically inclined (to say the least), I am not even close to average when it comes to dancing, I only speak one language, and my memory is so poor I am sometimes cursed and often blessed to do the same thing over again for the first time.  My incapacities, as do all of ours, run deep and broad.  So what do we mean when we refer to someone as being “incapacitated”?


Words are not inherently pejorative, it is the use to which they are put over time that allow them to mature into a demeaning inference.  In a guardianship proceeding, is “incompetent” any different than “incapacitated” except that “incompetent” has matured and “incapacitated” is maturing?  In this case, we simply mean a person who is sufficiently “incapacitated” to require a guardian.  Is there any reason why legal captions don’t simply refer to the individual as “a person alleged to be in need of a guardian” or “person in need of a guardian”?  I have used this language for over 25 years to the accolades of some Courts and the derision of others.  In the context of guardianship the term “incapacitated” has little or no quantitative or qualitative value and due to its imprecise meaning it is destined to become as pejorative as have similar terms with a scientific and legal past (e.g., incompetent, retarded, moron).


            The challenge is not to determine whether an individual is “incapacitated,” but to determine whether or not the individual needs a guardian.  Such an individual could be a 90 year old millionaire on a respirator that the medical profession has declared “brain dead” or a 19 year old who drives to work.  Is the finding of the Court that the person is “incapacitated” and, as a result, needs a guardian?  If that were true, we would all require a guardian.  No, the evidence is submitted simply to identify a cut point along the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of capacity (or as we used to say “competency”) where the need for a guardian would be justified.


Words are not the problem.  The problem is the intention of those that use the term and/or the meaning attributed to the term by those to which it is intended to refer.  Terms that are dimensional (e.g., incompetent, disabled, autistic) need to be specified to be meaningful or they are so broad as to be meaningless.


Grammatical conventions such as “person first” language are not merely extreme political correctness (as some claim), they are semantically sensitive to the meaning of the speaker and the feelings of those to which the speaker intends to refer.  Do we refer to a school for children with disabilities as a “disabled school”?  However, we refer to a child with a disability as a “disabled child.”  This we do despite the “disabled child” (e.g., blind) having an operatic singing voice, painting like Michelangelo, or writing like Hemingway.


A single word used to describe a population considered disadvantaged will always become pejorative regardless of the good intentions of the originator.  Also, using a single attribute to define an individual whose attributes are many is as misleading as it is unjust.  As Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Words are loaded pistols.”  We should be careful in their use.