[WARNING: Triggering and offensive terms]
By now, most people recognize how harmful words such as fa**ot, c**t, and the n-word can be. However, a majority of the time, people say words that they don’t even know aren’t appropriate to use. Although we may not see these words as offensive or harmful, we need to recognize how hurtful they can be, and then eliminate them from our vocabulary. And don’t worry! There are alternatives which actually communicate what you’re trying to say much better anyway.
1. Mental illness is not a passing feeling.
What we sometimes say: “I’m so OCD about this project!”
Sure, you might be super neat, but that does not mean you “are OCD.” People with OCD struggle immensely to control their compulsions which can lead them to articulate in self-destructive behaviors because they cannot stop. Those with OCD must often undergo various types of therapy which may or may not include medication. OCD is not just a desire for things to look pretty and neat, or a recognition of picky attitudes. It is an illness that can completely dominate someone’s life, whether treated or not. And when not take seriously by peers, it becomes twice as stressful.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: neat, picky.
What we sometimes say: “The weather is so bipolar today!”
The weather may be erratic and all over the place, but it does not suffer from manic-depressive disorder. Your friend may have changed her mind about something often and seemingly for no reason, but it does not mean she will one moment be manic one moment and the next suicidal and depressed. Bipolar disorder is not the simple swinging back and forth between two things, or sad one moment and happy the next. Bipolar disorder involves extreme changes in moods that occur for weeks on end, that can destroy people’s lives.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: erratic, all over the place, unreasonable, back-and-forth.
What we sometimes say: “I can’t believe I got a bad grade on that test, I’m so depressed!”
Maybe this one is a little more personal for more, but it really bugs me how often people misuse the word “depressed.” Depression isn’t necessarily just a passing sadness where you feel a little down for a couple days. Depression is something that can feel like it takes over your life and consumes every part of you. Depression has been so romanticized by the media and sites like Tumblr (although there can be good support resources on there), that people have a very distorted view of what depression is. Depression is not always obvious. Life with depression feels impossible to get through at times. One might be feeling sad over something, but that does not necessarily indicate depression. People with depression can truly be triggered by the smallest things, and jokingly throwing around the term “depressed” can make less of their struggle. Turning a serious illness into something light and annoying rather than something that can end one’s life is not okay.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: upset, bummed (out), sad, blue, disappointed.
What we sometimes say: “Man, he’s such a psycho!”
Psychosis involves being disconnected from reality, which is often seen in illnesses such as schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder. Hallucinations, delusions, dissociations; these are the symptoms of psychotic conditions, not “being a crazy asshole.” like soap operas and action films like to suggest. People with mental illness may suffer a psychotic break which may lead them to engage in dangerous behavior, but this still does not make them any way similar to the so called “psychos” that the media loves to glamorize. However, many people who are criminal and “psycho” do not even necessarily have a mental illness. Often, these criminals are white and have the privilege of saying they suffer from a mental illness to get out of jail time. People of color are seen as “terrorists” or “thugs” while a white person who commits an equally terrible or worse crime is seen as “mentally ill.” This demonstrates the institutionalized racism often present in the American justice system, and societies view on mental illness.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: Evil, strange, criminal, monster, unhinged.
2. Enough with the ableism
What we sometimes say: “That’s so dumb, what are you, ret**ded?”
The r word, stupid, idiot; these are all words that the medical community once used to describe someone who had an IQ of below 70. What was once called retardation, was a “generalized neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significantly impaired intellectual and adaptive functioning.” Today the medical community has done away with such offensive terms to describe someone with a developmental disorder, however that doesn’t mean the stigma is gone, or that the medical community doesn’t have a lot of work to do. When we use one of these phrases, we not only objectify the person; viewing them as inferior and someone to be laughed at, but we wind back the clock to remind them of a time when doctors would “treat” them with electro-shocks and freezing jets of water to the face. Someone’s ability to process information or to adapt to a level of functioning has no impact on how much respect they deserve, and in whichever context you use these phrases, you’re giving them no respect.
The word dumb also means to be inable to speak, so it’s another word to look out for.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: Confusing,foolish, silly.*
*These are very relative to the situation you use the word in, using alternative words does not give anyone the right to insult others simply because they are not inherently offensive words.
What we sometimes say: “That is so lame!”
Being lame does not mean uncool. Being lame, means you are physically impaired from using your legs, yet even within this context it is still an offensive and outdated term. If a person who has use of their legs, they should not be using a word describing a physical inhibition to describe something they are not a fan of.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: Uncool, cheesy, tacky, corny.
What we sometimes say: “You’re too obsessed with that, what are you, autistic?/An autist?”
Using the word autistic to insult a person who is behaving in a way you think is strange, is simply not okay. The “logic” for this word being used as an insult comes from various characteristics of the Autism spectrum such as preoccupation with specific interests and a high level of focus. To turn this into something “weird” and “disturbing” shows a strong misunderstanding of the condition, not to mention just a general closed minded look at someone’s passion for their interests.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: nerdy, geeky.
3. Let’s also stop using sexuality as an insult
What we sometimes say: “I’m not doing that, it’s so gay!”
Similarly to lame, despite how incredibly different each term is, the word gay is often used as a synonym to “uncool.” Many use this term incorrectly to imply something is “camp” and therefore uncool, which is the real uncool thing here.
Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you think something is cheesy, say that, being gay has literally nothing to do with something being uncool. In that same sense, saying “no homo” after saying something is a lot more homophobic than you might think. By saying “no homo” you are basically alienating yourself from the homosexual lifestyle because you’re afraid of being associated with it, and it’s not cool to be a bigot.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: cheesy, corny, tacky.
4. Can the racism and cultural appropriation!
What we sometimes say: “Urgh, my hair is so ratchet today!”
Ratchet is a term often used to describe a woman who is seen as un-classy and poorly dressed. It typically means dirty and undesirable when used in the most common sense. This word is often used to target African American women to degrade them and make less of their appearance. It’s often used in a self-deprecating manner to describe one’s own hair or style, but that doesn’t make it any less racist when coming from a white person; we cannot whitewash such a phrase, and we cannot ever use it to describe the aesthetic of a person of color.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: Messy, un-managable, frizzy, untidy.
5. We should also stop using words with historical negative connotations that are offensive, or degrading.
What we sometimes say: “He’s such a tough ni**a!” (often followed by: “What? It’s not as if I’m saying the n-word, they say it all the time in hip-hop!)
On top of using the full n-word, let’s stop appropriating the term ni**a. One of the most common defenses for using this word for white people is the fact that they have black friends, or that they are simply quoting rap lyrics. But that does not give one permission to use a word that has been historically known to degrade and make lesser of black people. Even this slang version of the true version of the word is offensive because of its origins linked back to not only times of slavery, but of segregation.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: friend, pal, bro, chum, mate, etc.
*Note: People of color may use this word when talking to one another, not that they ever need permission from anybody, but that does not give white people a reason to use this word. We have not suffered because of this word or been made less of because of this word. People of color who use this word are taking back its meaning and when you use it, you are making this reclamation of the word almost impossible to achieve.*
What we sometimes say: “It’s so ghetto!”
I feel like most people genuinely do not know why this word should not be used to describe things. Historically, ghettos have been places of segregation and poverty, and often crime. Ghettos, in America, are often areas of segregation of African American communities. Often, these areas experience a poor quality of life, due to poor community funding and institutional racism. Some African Americans may use the word as a positive term as a term of unification within their community. By using it to describe a style, we appropriate the word. We make lighter of the historical struggles of groups of people who have been ostracized from society and who are to this day ostracized to the ghetto. On top of African American history, there are and were ghettos all over the world, notably also in Jewish communities, so there are also anti-Semitic connotations when using the word incorrectly.
What we actually mean, and what we should say: Nothing to be perfectly honest, because when we call something ghetto we are usually being very specific in our meaning of street life and the quality of living. If you want to describe the style of a cool/uncool hat then just call it cool or uncool, the ghetto is irrelevant to the style and irrelevant to us as white people.
Sometimes, we don’t know how much our words can hurt other people. And it’s necessary to educate ourselves on the meanings of words. If someone says they are offended, it doesn’t take much to do further research and understand why. By doing this, we can truly learn how to properly and civilly communicate with one another.