dumb and stupid

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.


17 thoughts on “dumb and stupid

  1. The traditional opening hymn of the United Methodist Hymnal, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” contains a verse footnoted “May be omitted.” It is self-evident why:

    Hear him, ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb,
    your loosened tongues employ;
    ye blind, behold your Savior come,
    and leap, ye lame, for joy.

    “Lame” is another word that has transformed from an objective physical condition to a subjective epithet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oooh, I totally didn’t think of that! It would have been serendipitous if that had been one of our hymns this morning, but it wasn’t. Note that Deaf has become upper-cased as a personal/cultural identity, but I don’t think Blind has and I’m sure Lame hasn’t. (Ha, I first typed Bland.)

    Our hymn book doesn’t mark that verse, but instead the one starting ‘He breaks the power of cancelled sin’.


  3. I’ll comment on the Deaf thing later.

    Meanwhile, the line “He breaks the power of cancelled sin” gives rise to some language thoughts. Does cancelled sin have power? Presumably not; only uncancelled sin would possess that power. So Jesus must break the power of sin by cancelling it. However, the line as written suggests that cancelled sin retains power that Jesus has to break even after supposedly having been the one to cancel it. Maybe that’s why the line was marked in your book?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand compilers of hymn book mark verses as omissible for different reasons, ranging from questionably outdated language or theology to simply that a verse is tangential to the main idea of the hymn.
      For the number of times I’ve sung it, I’ve never thought about ‘the power of cancelled sin’. The line from ‘Rock of Ages’ springs to mind ‘Be of sin the double cure / Save me from its guilt and power’. Even if sin is / sins are cancelled, being humans, we are prone to dwelling on it / them *and doing it again* (well, I am – I don’t know about you). I’m not a theologian, so I may be overstepping my expertise here.


  4. About the capitalization of Deaf: start with the Wikipedia page on “deaf culture”:



    “Members of the Deaf community tend to view deafness as a difference in human experience rather than a disability or disease.”

    (I’m not aware of any parallel movement among those who are blind.)

    There’s a similar sentiment among people with Asperger’s syndrome (on the autism spectrum) about not wishing to be treated or converted but preferring to be the way they are as compared with “neurotypicals.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. No theologian myself, but you never know what line in a hymn will be controversial (outside of the usual inclusive/PC/wokeness stuff). For example, the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” contains the couplet:

    Till on that cross as Jesus died,
    The wrath of God was satisfied

    Some folks took issue with the second line, ostensibly because the notion of a wrathful God wasn’t comfortable for modern Christians. Pity, because this is one of the best contemporary hymns around (IMHO). Of course, “contemporary” in this case refers to songs written over 50 years ago.

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  6. I hesitated long and thought hard trying to decide what to type, which simply illustrates that there’s no really good overall term. A person can certainly be bicultural (I would classify one of my colleagues as that), but I’m not sure about one person being culturally diverse (though we all have facets of ourselves which we show in one context and not others). Maybe a child with parents from two different countries growing up in a third might just be.

    I haven’t noticed ‘person/people of colo(u)r’ being used in an Australian context, and I don’t know enough about the US context to venture a comment. Isn’t ‘light pink/sometimes slightly suntanned’ a colour? Do you know if the term was adopted by the people themselves or whether it was applied to them by light pink/sometimes slightly suntanned people?


  7. Don’t overthink the “culturally diverse” thing. I was viewing it purely from a linguistical standpoint, not a social or policy one. The article discussed the need to hire more “culturally diverse” people, and that made me wonder what a “diverse” individual would be. Kind of like one hand clapping, or one coin jangling.

    Related to that, there was a TV program on the American PBS network called One-on-One, hosted by Maria Hinojosa. A promo for that show featured the host talking about how wonderful diversity is and how we all need to promote it. I commented to my wife that her show was hardly diverse, since AFAICT the host and virtually all of her guests were Latin{oa}. (The Wikipedia page for Hinojosa actually says the show had a diverse group of guests, but I’d never seen any non-Hispanic guests the few times I watched it all the way through. Perhaps they meant occupationally diverse.)

    Liked by 1 person

      • That comment reminds me of the question of whether there is a difference between “Hispanic” and “Latino” (obviating the gender issue for now) and if so, what it is. Although I haven’t seen this suggested anywhere else, my idea is that Hispanic would refer to Spanish-speaking areas of the Western Hemisphere whereas Latino would apply to all of the “south of the border” nations. So Brazil would be Latino but not Hispanic. Does that make sense to you?

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Offhand I’d say that “colored people” are what whites used to call nonwhites but “people of color” is a term created by nonwhites. In this context the “white/nonwhite” distinction would put pink-skinned people on the white side of the spectrum. Spectra are, after all, continuous and not discrete.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. For obvious reasons, the distinction between Latinao and Hispanic doesn’t arise in Australia, so I’ve never really thought about it. After some reading and thinking, I would say that it depends on one’s understanding of ‘Hispanic’. If you take it to mean post-1492 Spain, its language, culture, former empire and ‘culture-phone’ (for want of a better term), then that would exclude Portugal, Portuguese and Brazil. If you take it to mean the Roman colony of Hispania, then it would include them. Meanwhile, there are also the French-speaking (Latinao but not Hispanic?) Guianans, the Dutch-speaking (not Latinao or Hispanic) Surinamese and the English-speaking (also not Latinao or Hispanic) Guyanese.

    The distinction between Spanish and Portuguese is possibly artificial anyway. I once observed a conversation between a student from Colombia and one from Brazil, with little difficulty on either side. (In general I understand that Portuguese speakers understand Spanish better, because of numbers and popular culture.)


    • After I said that I had never encountered the phrase ‘person/people of colour’ in an Australian context, it was probably inevitable that I’d do just that within a day or two. Sydney’s major news website had a headline using that phrase, but I don’t know whether it was about issues in the USA (despite the spelling) or Australia. The site offers only 5 articles per month free, so I can’t click on everything that catches my eye.


  10. There are various possible ways to reset the limit for free access to news articles via a browser. (One is to remove cookies for the web site, though that doesn’t work for all.) What is the link?

    Liked by 1 person

    • (Our replies are sometimes appearing nested with the the one we are replying to, and sometimes as new comments. I hope you can follow which goes where.)

      The story I saw is no longer on the front page of the news website, but I searched for ‘smh people of colour’ [smh being Sydney Morning Herald] and found “Fifty shades of beige, but women of colour left out Denying access to products to people of darker skin colours and forcing us to buy online – sometimes up to three times the price after including …”. At the cost of using one of my free articles, it is about Australia.

      I also found another use from earlier this month, which I saw but totally forgotten “Anglicans [Episcopalians] elect migrant, former-Buddhist, person of colour as … The Anglican diocese of Sydney has elected its first person of colour Archbishop, Kanishka Raffel, at a time of significant division in the broader …”. He is of Sri Lankan heritage but was born in England.


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