A Very Brief History of Some Ableist Language

I think we all know that many words and phrases that have entered popular lexicon have horrendous origins: history is SUPER racist, sexist, every -ist you can think of, and that includes etymology. There are a lot of words we’ve ceased using because of those origins. However, words and phrases with ableist origins often get less recognition and are more widely used. Here I’ll discuss a couple of words that are in our automod feature because of those ableist origins to give some context as to why they are considered ableist. I’ll also discuss other words that are increasingly being recognized for problematic origins, and provide some alternatives. Please note ahead of time that this isn’t an update to site policy, beyond explaining the rationale behind some words being in our mod filter. Aside from those words that are in our filter, I’m not asking you to change how you express yourself on the Avocado. I’m just providing some context.

Trigger warning going forward for use of ableist slurs.

Okay, first let’s talk about a few of the words that are in our auto-mod filter. I’d like to note two things first: one is that we are not going to be publishing a complete list of words that are in our (admittedly very short) automod filter because we aren’t interested in giving people an open invitation to find ways around it. And now that that’s been said…don’t take this as an invitation to find ways around the filter for these words. I don’t think we need to explain the r-word being on this list. That also means that fucktard and just plain tard are on the list. I don’t think I need to explain the origins of these ones: they’re pretty self-explanatory.

Also on our list is “derp”, though we are in discussion about this one. The origins of this one are contested, but most signs point to it originating is a way to make fun of the perceived speech pattern of non-neurotypical people, particularly people with Down’s Syndrome.

Feeb is one with a much clearer origin that is also on our list. The word is short for “feebleminded”, and was used as a descriptor for people who were non-NT, then later as a general insult for people perceived as “slow”.

Finally, spaz is on our list. Per Language Log this is short for “spastic”, which was “a term historically used to describe people with spastic paralysis, a condition that disables the part of the nervous system controlling motor coordination”. Now used to describe someone losing physical control and/or acting strangely, it’s origins are still clearly ableist.

There are many words that are not currently on our list but that do in fact have ableist origins. Your mileage will vary as to whether or not people find these words offensive. My personal decision has been to limit my use of some of these, cease using some altogether, and no matter what to always cease using a word that someone has told me is upsetting to them. I’m not going to list all of those words here, but here is a good resource. Warning, the link contains a list of ableist terms:

Ableist Words and Terms to Avoid

Some examples included and why are:

Cretin, referring to people with intellectual disabilities
Lame, referring to people with mobility issues
Lunatic, referring to people with mental or psychiatric differences

These sites offer alternatives to some of the more commonly used terms:

Introduction to Disability Terminology

Alternatives to Ableist and Oppressive Words

Alternatives to Oppressive Language

Again, I’d like to note that (aside from the words that are on our filter list) this thread isn’t meant to be taken as a rule update for The Avocado and it isn’t meant to tell you what words you can and cannot use here. It’s meant to be an educational tool and to offer some alternatives to those who might want to remove some of these terms from their day to day speech. None of us is able to 100% guarantee that we’ll never say or do anything that might hurt another person: we basically have to pick and choose what we have the spoons/energy/ability to prioritize. For those who may want ableism to be one of the things they prioritize avoiding, I hope this has been helpful!