Lame, lame, lame

A Ragged Edge reader asks us a question:

Is the word "lame" considered offensive to people with disabilities? Does the fact that the word "ineffectual" is a synonym for "lame" have any connection or reference to disability?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary on the web gives these definitions for "lame":


1 a : having a body part and especially a limb so disabled as to impair freedom of movement. b : marked by stiffness and soreness: a lame shoulder

2 : lacking needful or desirable substance : weak, ineffectual: a lame excuse.

3 slang : not being in the know; "square".

This kind reader has given me another opportunity to hop upon my hobby-horse -- disability words used as metaphors to mean "bad" -- and pontificate.

The definitions offered by the dictionary -- and as we all probably know from hearing the word "lame" used so much to mean something derogative -- show that the word has migrated, as have most older or "archaic" words about disability, into a second, metaphorical meaning: ineffective, bad, incompetent, etc. I've written about this happening with blind and also with deaf. And now I'm blogging about "lame."

Because "lame" has been "taken over," if you will, by others using it to mean "weak, ineffectual," it now seems like a slur even when used in its original sense. In this way it functions like the "N" word in racial discourse, the Ur 'Word We Cannot Use' -- only in the case of the "N" word, African-Americans -- as a group and as individuals -- are highly outraged if it gets used (and rightly so, I say).

When disability words get used badly, disabled people mostly just grin and bear it. Doesn't mean it's the correct thing to do, though.

Reporters sometimes, trying to be too clever by half (now what does THAT expression come from?), will sometimes refer to people with disabilities en masse as "the halt, the lame and the blind." We can talk about PC and get all the PC watchdogs riled up, the ones who like to complain that the crip movement is too PC. Given the lack of outrage most of us show over these terms, though, I'd say we're no way too PC; that we're in fact afraid of being PC, that the PC watchdogs have chewed us into submission.

I think a little more complaining -- or at least discussion -- is called for.

February 10, 2006 | Email this story


Comments (newest comments at bottom)

I adore the little button I wear on my coat, which I ordered from a radical site referred by Ragged Edge -- it says "Lame is Sexy". And for all three definitions of "lame", the mantra stands. ; )

Posted by: Evonne on February 10, 2006 11:55 AM

Emi Koyama has had a "Lame is good" campaign going for quite a few years now. She believes, that like the term crip, lame needs to be taken back as positive.

In her words, "This is a campaign designed to change the society's attitude toward people with disabilities by challenging the negative use of the term "lame." We recommend using the word "lame" only when you want to say something positive--e.g. "You're so fucking lame! Can I have an autograph?" Try calling something you love "lame"--it feels so subversive every time we do."

Her website has more dialogue on this and other issues. Also for sale, "lame is good" buttons. Get yours and show your lame pride.


Posted by: Robin Stephens on February 10, 2006 12:11 PM

I started using the word lame when I was trying to stop myself from using the word gay. I have never associated the word lame with disabilities. I will now stop using this word also. Thank you for pointing this out to me. It's strange how so many words in our language are misused everyday.

Posted by: Amy on February 11, 2006 07:24 PM

When crip websites and buttons are read as often as horse-racing magazines and the Bible I'll welcome the use of "lame" and stop playing the lame game. But 90% of the time "lame" is used to reduce people to a pitiful state, or to describe a horse no longer worthy of living (after all, no one will bet on it).

I don't mind being called "lame-brained," since anyone using the epithet should have been able to find another way of saying the same thing. I hope I can find a better epithet to use in response.

Posted by: Art Blaser on February 11, 2006 10:23 PM

seriously. why can't we just all get on the same page and say, "people with disabilities"? i have never liked reappropriation because its so "fun" that people get on board who have no business getting on board. lets send a clear message about what words denote respect and then demand that, unless we are too disabled.

Posted by: eleanor on February 13, 2006 03:43 PM

Lame. Special. Crippled. Amazing. I think about a phrase I read in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach. "The price of being misunderstood,... They call you devil or they call you god." We are misunderstood. We will be diefied by some and villinized by others. In return we must be both graceful and fierce. We must be both a gentle teacher and strong advocate. We must meet some with anger and some with love, because some look at us with fear and other with contempt. Let's not treat them all the same.

Posted by: K O on February 19, 2006 07:45 AM

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