By John Mederich
John is a senior at Mather High School. He’s a reporter for The Mash, a weekly teen publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.
How would you respond if someone called you “gay” or “retarded”? Some teens may laugh it off, but to others, these words are offensive and harmful.
In fact, some words have been misrepresented so many times that they’ve lost their actual meaning.
“I don’t really see how ‘gay’ can be a synonym for the word ‘stupid,’ and I kind of question why (we) use that word instead of using the word ‘stupid,’" said Whitney Young senior Cornell McCollum. “I’m not gay so I don’t find it offensive, but if you slip and say it around someone who hasn’t come out yet, that could cause a big problem.”
Nationwide, even seemingly innocent words are being targeted for exclusion.
In March, the New York City Department of Education proposed banning some words they deem offensive in standardized tests, including “dinosaur” and “birthday.”
CNN reports that the word “dinosaur” may evoke thoughts of evolution, which may be offensive to people who don’t believe the theory. “Birthday” may be offensive to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t celebrate birthdays.
In addition, Michigan’s Lake Superior State University released its 37th annual “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness” in December. This year’s words include “baby bump” and “man cave.” The university explains on its website that “baby bump” makes pregnancy sound like it’s a celebrity trend instead of a choice, and “man cave” is offensive to men because the word stereotypes all males.
There are other offensive words that groups such as Best Buddies International, an organization that helps create opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities, are working to ban. The “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign, sponsored by the Special Olympics, seeks to stop the use of the word “retard” by informing the public about the negative social stigma associated with the word.
“A lot of people don’t think about the impact the word has on people with intellectual disabilities, so that’s why the campaign is really focused on education and raising awareness,” said Matthew Vail, program manager at Best Buddies Illinois.
As far as Illinois education laws are concerned, there is no state policy prohibiting the use of specific words, according to Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education. She said that local school districts are in charge of this type of linguistic policy.
Although Chicago Public Schools doesn’t keep a list of district-wide banned words, CPS Director of Media Affairs Robyn Ziegler said in an email that the district considers the use of some words to be bullying. “CPS does take very seriously the use of profanity and derogatory terms and their impact on students and a school’s educational environment,” she said.
“It’s possible that teachers -- on an individual basis -- might prohibit the use of certain terms,” Ziegler said. “And while it doesn’t ban specific words, the (Student Code of Conduct) also specifically contains an anti-bullying statement which states that students are expected to act with consideration and respect for other students, staff and their property, and further defines bullying behaviors as both verbal and non-verbal, and that such behaviors may focus on characteristics such as race, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity/expression (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender [LGBT]) students.”
So should school districts do more?
Tina Kotek, a Bartlett sophomore, thinks schools should ban the words “gay” and “retarded.” “(Schools) should ban the word ‘retarded’ because it’s being so overused that even teachers are saying it towards students,” she said.
Best Buddies has teamed up with some schools to encourage students to not use words such as “gay.” “(We’ve) drawn parallels between the R-word and other sorts of derogatory comments used to (demoralize) certain groups of people. There’s definitely a connection there,” Vail said.
In fact, Salikoko Mufwene, a University of Chicago linguistics professor, believes that it isn’t so much the word itself as the feelings behind it that are harmful. “The reason why people ban (these kind of words) is because they are negatively charged emotionally and so they are likely to upset the people who they are being referred to,” he said. “(When) we speak we convey not only meanings but attitudes toward some people.”
But is banning these words really the answer? To some, it’s all about understanding. “If you know that there’s a difference between two alternative terms and you use the one that is negatively loaded, then there is no excuse for that; it must be deliberate,” Mufwene said.
ChiArts student Ryan Wasney, however, believes that the solution is simple and starts right at school. “I think if you want students thinking about language, teachers should go ahead and start a conversation in class,” he said. “Class conversations get everyone thinking and everyone involved.”
Rachel Holderman of Bartlett contributed additional reporting.Also on TheMash.com:
- "Digital Spring Cleaning: Declutter Your Devises"
- "Interview: Nicholas Sparks"
- "Spotlight Athlete: Dani Goranson"
Correction: A previous version of this article indicated that Ryan Wasney was a senior at ChiArts. However, his actual grade level has not been confirmed.