Are We Linguistically Disabled?

In June the Today show personality Al Roker was discussing an animated version of a logo. “Remember that controversial Olympic logo for the 2012 Olympics in London?” he asked. “Some folks have complained that the campaign actually sent them into epileptic seizures. Well, we asked you to weigh in on our Web site in an informal poll; those of you who could get up off the floor after shaking around were able to actually log in.”

Roker apologized the next day: “I started joking about it. I want to make this clear—I was not joking about epilepsy or anyone who suffers from epilepsy. … We understand and know that this is a serious affliction and would never joke about that. … We were joking about the logo—not about epilepsy. If anybody was offended, I heartily and really humbly apologize.”

Never mind Roker’s unpersuasive apology. His remarks were clearly offensive and betrayed a profound insensitivity to the millions of people who suffer from the debilitating effects of epilepsy. But why did one bad joke engender the ensuing furor? There are two reasons. The first, much discussed, is Roker’s hypocrisy. Roker was one of the most insistent critics of Don Imus’s infamous “nappy-headed ho’s” comment, which eventually led to Imus’s dismissal. Why, some ask, should Roker not be held to the same standard? The second reason, less discussed but worthier of comment, is the taboo status of disability in American culture and especially public language.

Over the last two decades, disability has become the most taboo subject in American society. We seem unable to reconcile the fundamental tenet that all men are created equal with the equally powerful new admiration for physical and emotional perfection that drives so many of us to plastic surgery and Prozac. To a linguist, though, regardless of the cause, the evidence is in our language.

What is taboo changes, for reasons that we do not always understand. For example, in the middle of the last century, we witnessed the end of a long period in which religious swear words were taboo. The decline of that taboo was famously signaled by Rhett Butler’s line to Scarlett, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Nowadays, religious curse words are commonplace, and terms related to sex, excretion, and death seem to be following suit.

The most taboo subjects are literally unspeakable; we avoid saying anything at all about them. The next-best solution is a euphemism: People may talk about the topic, but they must use words that polite society deems appropriate, like “copulation,” “urine,” “onanism,” or “sodomy.” A good euphemism should always sound a bit peculiar, allowing us to create a distance between ourselves and the subject, as if we are saying the word in shudder quotes or picking it up with tongs. The best euphemisms are clinical, conjuring up objectivity in their use, though it is not obvious what is inherently objective about a word like “stool.” Trying to explain why a euphemism is acceptable while the “real” words are forbidden can itself be dangerous. Think of Lenny Bruce, whose obsession with a common word for copulation—a word that, to this day, cannot be printed in newspapers and most mainstream magazines, or uttered on network television or radio—had tragic consequences.

Sex and bodily functions are still taboo in American culture, but much less so than they were 50 years ago. The expression “piss off,” which could never have been uttered in mixed company in my youth, is now frequent. And the word that led Lenny Bruce to an early death was more common on The Sopranos than the previously taboo bare breasts of the exotic dancers at the Bada Bing Club. Dirty words just ain’t what they used to be.

But every generation has new taboos, and what made people sit up and take notice of Al Roker’s little joke was the fact that he broke not one but two of them. The first is stereotyping, usually by ethnicity, gender, or race, but sometimes by profession, regional origin, or some other characteristic. While it was common a generation ago to tell Polish jokes (and Norwegian jokes the generation before that), the only groups Americans are permitted to make fun of on the air nowadays are blondes and mobsters. So Roker’s first mistake was to tell a joke that stereotyped an identifiable group of people besides those two. What really got him into hot water, though, was that he stereotyped, and joked about, a category of disabled people.

Remember that the most taboo of topics, like the love that once dared not speak its name, are those about which we cannot talk at all, for which we have no words. Disability is now entering that realm. More and more, we find ways not to utter or write the word. A careful observer can watch this cultural shift as it happens. A few months ago, I was entering a men’s room in California when a sign caught my eye. “Nearest accessible restrooms on the third floor,” it announced. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “aren’t these rest-rooms right here in front of me accessible? After all, I am walking into one. Why the odd sign?” Then I realized that the sign was indicating disabled-accessible restrooms, but the word “disabled” had become so charged that it must not be uttered or even written, only inferred.

One good indicator that a topic is highly taboo is the instability of the terms used in discussing it. In the postwar period, when race relations in this country were at their most volatile, nomenclature shifted very quickly from the two older terms, colored and Negro, to black and, finally, African-American. There was also much discussion along the way of which term was best.

In terminology, disability is now at the point that race was 50 years ago. When I was a child, the term “crippled” was perfectly acceptable, especially in the names of the many hospitals and other organizations dedicated to the care of crippled children. Today “crippled” has become taboo, and most of those organizations have changed their names to avoid it. A quick Internet search easily unearths dozens of examples. What was once the Crippled Children’s Association of South Australia is now Novita Children’s Services (novità is the Italian word for novelty, innovation, or news). The Crippled Child-ren’s Society of Southern California, founded in 1926, became AbilityFirst in 1999.

“Crippled” and “cripple” still have a few proponents, motivated by an in-your-face spirit similar to the one that led to the revival of the taboo word “queer” some years ago. The best example of this usage that I know of is in Nancy Mairs’s wonderful essay “On Being a Cripple,” in which she writes:

“‘Cripple’ seems to me a clean word, straightforward and precise. It has an honorable history, having made its first appearance in the Lindisfarne Gospel in the 10th century. As a lover of words, I like the accuracy with which it describes my condition: I have lost the full use of my limbs. ‘Disabled,’ by contrast, suggests any incapacity, physical or mental. And I certainly don’t like ‘handicapped,’ which implies that I have deliberately been put at a disadvantage, by whom I can’t imagine.”

The disability taboo is part of a larger societal trend to taboo all perceived human defects, all departures from physical and mental perfection. That larger taboo has led to one of the strangest and most notable euphemisms in the history of any language or culture: the “people (living) with X” construction. What is most interesting about that euphemism is that it is not a single expression but a frame that allows speakers to construct an entire family of euphemisms, since X can be any tabooed condition, and the word “living” is optional.

The construction appears to have started with chronic diseases, in such expressions as people (living) with cancer/AIDS/ADHD/etc. One rationale for this way of putting things was that by literally placing the person first, not the condition, we are de-emphasizing the condition. Another was that it allowed us to avoid the degrading term “victim,” as in “cancer victim.” The “people (living) with X” construction quickly moved beyond chronic diseases to stigmatized human conditions that had always been described with adjectives, like (mentally) retarded. Now they are people (living) with mental retardation. More broadly, where we formerly spoke of disabled people, we now say people with disabilities or, following the California examples, people with nothing but abilities, which, by deleting the negative prefix dis-, allows us to remove ourselves even further from the unspeakable. Finally, we have a simple way to talk about disability without mentioning it at all!

In the 1994 Woody Allen movie Bullets Over Broadway, whenever the young playwright who has been smitten by the older female lead in his play tries to declare his love for her, she whispers dramatically, “Don’t speak.” Al Roker might well have heeded her advice when it came to that most unspeakable of subjects.

Taboos reflect the preoccupations of the societies in which they are embedded. Disability will be verbally charged as long as we are preoccupied with the physical and emotional perfection that few of us can aspire to. We will either get over it and accept ourselves, as the Dove soap campaign for real beauty exhorts us to, or, in a future more reminiscent of another Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, we will have plastic surgery and Prozac for all, greeting more-serious disabilities with an exceedingly awkward silence.

Mark Aronoff is a professor of linguistics and associate provost at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His books include the co-authored, What Is Morphology? (Black-well Publishers, 2005) and the co-edited The Handbook of Linguistics (Blackwell Publishers, 2001).

Reprinted from Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 July 2007