After I mentioned Stephen Pinker’s phrase euphemism treadmill in a reply to a comment on my recent post on TARD, and also mentioned Sharon Henderson Taylor’s euphemism cycle, I searched for further information. Google showed me Will Styler’s blog post about The R Word and the Euphemism Treadmill, which starts with a mention of a post on the Special Olympics blog by John Franklin Stephens, a Special Olympics athlete and global messenger in response to Ann Coulter’s use of retard while tweeting about a presidential debate in 2012. He starts:
Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow.
I was struck by his use of dumb. This word began as meaning lacking the power of speech, but later came to mean lacking intelligence or good judgment. Some people are unable to speak because of some deficit in the trachea and/or larynx, some because of a stroke or other injury in a language-related area of the brain, and some because of a congenital neuro-developmental condition. Inability to speak does not necessarily mean lack of intelligence, partial or total. Even if it does, these people deserve our support, not our insults. How we talk about people matters.
Dictionary.com marks the lacking the power of speech meaning as “offensive when applied to humans” (so the lacking intelligence or good judgment meaning isn’t?). If someone can’t speak, we probably say X can’t speak, not X is dumb.
A similar word is stupid, which only ever means lacking ordinary quickness and keenness of mind. I have a vague memory of reading that a particular classroom or household banned the use of stupid.
I’ve referred to people as dumb or stupid (from a distance), but I hope not to their face, and also to myself, either out loud or internally. There may be some difference between calling someone intrinsically dumb or stupid as opposed to calling something they say or do dumb or stupid, but that may be of small comfort to someone repeatedly on the receiving end.