06/24/2014 04:13 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

Word Power

I found an old newspaper under my desk and quickly looked over the front page. Clinton White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, never known for tact, characterized liberal activists as retarded, with a short expletive attached. The word retarded is unacceptable no matter how it is used. It hurts others and cheapens us.

What no one will admit is that we all use some variation of that term in safe circles, where friends excuse each other's bad taste and simply laugh it off. Who has not used the term -- retard -- never to be quoted or at least attributed. The most sensitive among us can wink and break ranks with the righteous to say things the wrong way.

The power of language to define or wound cannot be denied. All of us know expressions that demean based on race and gender or mental health. I once heard a surly neighbor call my father a cripple. Unkind language keeps narrow-minded attitudes alive. Most of us agree there are haters out there. Old language feeds old prejudices. In our society, one group or another always draws the short straw.Too often, it is the sick, maybe you and me.

"Words are loaded pistols," Jean-paul Sarte wrote. Of course, time passes, and language standards change. What is acceptable at one point in history can offend and leave people in disbelief later. Words also reveal public prejudice toward sickness.

New York City's respected Hospital for Special Surgery used to be called the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled. Georgia's first state psychiatric facility was the Georgia Lunatic Asylum. You could not make those up. They are particularly egregious examples of ignorance disguised as acceptable language.

The word crippled no longer is tolerated. The Newington Home for Crippled children in Connecticut was changed more than a generation ago. Crippled always seemed neutral to me as I grew up. It seems harsh now. Maybe any word Charles Dickens used is automatically off-limits. Tiny Tim needs a name change fast. Ask a guy on a cane about words. Walk a mile in his prescription shoes.