Refreshing the S-word

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Today's Pearls Before Swine:


The treatment of words for "stupid" has a been a serious problem for at least two millennia, as discussed here ten years ago ("The S-word and the F-word", 6/12/2004).

It's interesting that three of the strip's four initial examples involve words for stereotypically female jobs. It's true that this has been a major source of term-replacement candidates in recent decades, but there are plenty of examples on the other side of the gender ledger, like "garbageman" to "sanitary engineer", and also plenty of essentially ungendered examples, like "personnel" to "human resources".

An interesting community-specific euphemism is "neurotypical" for "normal".  The OED defines neurotypical as "Neurologically typical; spec. exhibiting ordinary, as opposed to autistic, thinking and behaviour". The earliest citations are

1994 Clarification in bit.listserv.autism (Usenet newsgroup) 5 Dec., This goes for a neurotypical child, as well as an autistic child.
1996   Re: TS: Disorder of Disinhibition & Overcontrol? (Part 1) in alt.support.tourette (Usenet newsgroup) 12 Apr.,   The autistics speak about ‘Neurotypicals’ being a totally alien culture.

I was able to antedate those references slightly with a quick Google Books search, which yielded this example from Toni Flowers, Reaching the Child with Autism Through Art, 1992:

This example suggests that the term was already in common use as of 1992, so others will no doubt be able to find substantially earlier citations.

Wikipedia says that

Neurotypical (NT) is a term coined in the autistic community as a label for people who are not on the autism spectrum. The term eventually became used for anyone who does not have atypical neurology, however, in other words, anyone who does not have autism, dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder, bipolar disorder, or ADD/ADHD. The term has been replaced by some with "allistic", which has the same meaning as "neurotypical" did originally. The concept was later adopted by both the neurodiversity movement and the scientific community.

The National Autistic Society's page on How to Talk about Autism puts normal in its "Don't say" column, with the corresponding entry in the "Do say" column being

neurotypical (Note: This term is only used within the autism community so may not be applicable in, for example, the popular press.)

The same page also suggests that "normally developing children" should be replaced by "typically developing children", reinforcing the idea that normal is a word to be avoided as far as this community is concerned.

It's plausible that at some point in the future, the connotations and implications of  typical might lead to it being rejected as well — and here's one mild example of such an argument: Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone, "Autistic, Allistic, Neurodiverse, and Neurotypical: Say what?", 4/13/2013.

[I should make it clear that I support these terminological substitutions in many cases. One of the benefits is to bring up for discussion the connotations of the terms at issue, and therefore a larger set of related issues. It's also worth noting that the changing linguistic norms of this kind serve as a signal of community membership, just as other sorts of culture do -- and the people who object to "political correctness" have their own shibboleths.]

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29 Comments »

  1. Willy said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 9:37 am

    The Washington Post must have found something offensive in this strip; it substituted one from 2008 about Danny Donkey and an ugly stick.

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 10:43 am

    > "It's plausible that at some point in the future, the connotations and implications of typical might lead to it being rejected as well"

    Yes; I do get the impression from some of the autism/Asperger sites – especially ones with an 'autistic pride' stance – that the term "neurotypical" can already carry a slight pejorative edge, semantically close to "mundane".

  3. GeorgeW said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 11:00 am

    It seems to me that anyone or anything that has a lower social status is a candidate for ever changing labels as we attempt to correct social inequities with language. As long as the status remains, the new label is bound, I think, over time to acquire a negative connotation which then requires a new one.

  4. cd said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

    Neurotypical has a different meaning than normal: it means people whose minds work in the usual way. "Normal" would also imply that the body is not disabled or otherwise unusual. And yes, I do usually see "neurotypical" used pejoratively.

  5. Rodger C said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

    "neurotypical" also differs from "normal" in that it excludes psychogenic mental oddities. Can I say "oddities"?

  6. hanmeng said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 3:53 pm

    Fools, imbeciles, idiots…. (Present company excepted, to be sure.)

    http://www.duhaime.org/LegalDictionary/M/MentallyIll.aspx

  7. David Morris said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

    A few weeks ago I had occasion give an example in terms of Chinese characters to a Chinese student of ESL. I wrote '人' (being one of the few characters I know) on the board, or at least I thought I did, because the student completely failed to recognise it.

  8. David Morris said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

    (The comment above is meant to be in the 'Cursive' thread. Sorry, it's first thing Monday morning here.)

  9. Alex said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

    Would you describe "heterosexual" as a euphemism for "normal"? How about "hearing" or "sighted"? If not, what difference do you see between the way those words are used and the way "neurotypical" is used?

  10. Eric P Smith said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 8:58 pm

    I'm interested that Ray Girvan and cd perceive that “neurotypical” is sometimes used pejoratively. I can’t say I’ve noticed that here in the UK. I have a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and I regard “neurotypical” merely as a useful value-neutral term that contrasts with “autism spectrum disorder”, much as “hearing” contrasts with “deaf", and “sighted" contrasts with “blind” (my apologies if these latter are not now approved terms).

    Personally I don't get hung up about the niceties. I don’t mind whether I am referred to as having a “condition” or a “disorder” or a “disability” or a “problem” or a “challenge”. I am neither proud of it nor ashamed of it, though I do find it a blessed nuisance. I appreciate that others with ASD may feel differently.

  11. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 9:00 pm

    Judging from the antedating you've found (admittedly just a single datum), Wikipedia seems to have it wrong: although that antedating supports the statement that "neurotypical" originated in the autistic community, it contradicts the statement it originally meant "not on the autistic spectrum" and only later was generalized.

  12. Neil Dolinger said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 8:53 am

    @Alex,
    Whose opinion are you asking? Everyone here likely has a different perspective from the others.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 9:47 am

    One of my recent favorites in this genre has alas not yet prospered and driven out the term it was intended to replace. Incumbent term: "serodiscordant" (describing a sexual relationship in which one partner is HIV-positive and the other HIV-negative); would-be replacement term "serodiverse." Presumably because diversity sounds less pejorative than discord?

  14. Henry Clay said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 10:01 am

    "Neurotypical", though, seems to me to be a different kind of euphemism than the others mentioned here.

    "Maid", "Midget" and others are specific things that were renamed because of real or supposed negative connotations of the word. The euphemistic treadmill of lame/handicapped/disabled/challenged is another good example of this.

    "Neurotypical", however, is a euphemism to describe the general case rather than the specific case. It describes "not p" rather than "p". "Cisgendered" would be another example. It's a kind of euphemistic retronym.

    This seems to me to be a rarer and more recent phenomenon, especially concerning medically-related fields, but is that just the recency fallacy?

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    There is a tradition of at least mildly pejorative words for the not-P majority being adopted by members of smaller group P, as in the "mundanes" example given above but also in the hippie/beatnik use of "square" (is that now obsolete?) and the (semantically-related) use of "straight" (which meant "not using drugs like we cool bohemian people do" before that was crowded out by the alternative meaning "not gay"). But "neurotypical" differs from those in being very technical/jargony/"scientific"-sounding, which perhaps creates some plausible deniability with regard to any pejorative undertones.

  16. Eric P Smith said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    Mark Liberman and some commenters are calling "neurotypical" a euphemism: other commenters are calling it pejorative. I'm confused. Are these not opposites?

    [(myl) A euphemism, by definition, is "a less distasteful word or phrase used as a substitute for something harsher or more offensive". And neurotypical apparently arose because naming the non-autistic category "normal" was seen as implicitly offensive to those placed in the autistic category.

    In fact (neuro-)typical might be taken to be indirectly offensive for roughly the same reason. But alternatively, you could use it dismissively, in the way that words like average and ordinary can be used to denigrate those who are near the norm in some relevant qualities.]

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

    I would say that "neurotypical" is sort of a para-euphemism (to coin a term that could probably be improved on) insofar as it has embedded in it an arguably euphemistic characterization of the non-neurotypical (neuroatypical? aneurotypical?) — i.e. by characterizing those individuals' conditions by contrast as (merely?) atypical, it avoids directly slotting them into less euphemistic categories like disease, disorder, disability, etc.

  18. Dan T. said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

    "Muggle" is often used in a similar sense to "mundane" among those influenced by the Harry Potter series.

  19. Eric P Smith said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

    Thanks Mark. I guess I'm just blind to some of the nuances (which should surprise no-one). To me, "neurotypical" is simply an affect-less way of saying "not on the autistic spectrum".

  20. hector said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer:

    "straight" (which meant "not using drugs like we cool bohemian people do" before that was crowded out by the alternative meaning "not gay")

    – except "straights" did use drugs: alcohol (by today's standards, copiously), nicotine, caffeine, "mother's little helpers," etc. "Straight" came, I'm guessing, from "straight-laced," and referred to a hypocritical, often rigid, unexamined "morality" that was based in custom and rested on the belief that "the way we do things is the only right way to do things, because, well, it's the way we do things."

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    hector: are you just pointing out that people who use pejorative words about other groups of people often feel justified in doing so because they feel superior to those whom they are deriding? (Alternatively, they may feel a bit nervous and insecure about their own social position and thus engage in childish boasting/posturing as a sort of whistling past the graveyard.)

    I do think it's interesting that the (perhaps always comparatively mild) pejorativeness seems to have bleached out of "straight" as the sexual-orientation sense has become dominant over time, and it's become pretty neutral (although perhaps still more suitable for less formal registers).

    Other examples of pejorative characterizations used by the self-consciously marginal toward those whom they perceive as more mainstream might include the cuisine-derived "vanilla" and "whitebread." Vanilla in the culinary sense is of course not the absence of flavor but a a rather distinctive and enjoyable (and expensive, if sourced properly) flavor in its own right, but metaphors of this sort may skip over that sort of nuance. (Also, I grew up in one of the parts of the country where proper vanilla ice cream was supposed to have teensy-but-visible black specks in it rather than just being plain white, so that may have set me up with a different set of metaphorical associations.)

  22. Daniel Barkalow said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

    I think "neurotypical" was created as clarifying jargon more than anything. In some settings, most of the population is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and it's confusing to call the few other people "normal", particularly when discussing how surprising you find their behavior. Despite the transparent etymology, I don't think it's as tempting for "neurotypical" to flip based on the local population. I also don't think it's particularly pejorative; in some settings, it's distinctly negative, but that's when the condition described is being considered negative, rather than "The reason you know I'm being insulting is that I chose the bad word for it."

  23. D.O. said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 6:55 pm

    "Deviations are normal" seems to me an old statistics joke, but I cannot find a cite…

  24. Ray Girvan said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 8:37 pm

    To clarify what I had in mind when I said "neurotypical" could be pejorative: it seems to be used that way in 'autism pride' / 'aspie pride' circles, where they treat characteristics of being on the autism spectrum as essentially superpowers that "neurotypicals" don't have. For instance, the autistic tendency to fixate on stuff is represented as preternatural ability to focus; inability to 'get' unspoken cues is viewed as a more truthful way of viewing the world; and so on.

  25. chris said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 6:17 am

    And neurotypical apparently arose because naming the non-autistic category "normal" was seen as implicitly offensive to those placed in the autistic category.

    Well, when you describe one group as normal, aren't you implicitly describing the opposite group as abnormal? Which has a long history of pejorativeness, IIRC occasionally including actual persecution.

  26. Quodlibet said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 8:32 am

    @hector
    "'Straight' came, I'm guessing, from 'straight-laced,'" – let me go for the pedantic gold by pointing out that it's really "strait-laced".

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

    It's an interesting question how you convey the general notion of "other-than-normal" without a pejorative undertone. "Atypical" is not as bad as "abnormal" but still seems potentially risky. "Extraordinary" is I suppose very positive in its connotations, but perhaps too over-the-top for use as a euphemism? That gets us to "exceptional," which in many if not all contexts suggests "other-than-normal/typical/ordinary, but in a good way." The trouble is that in educational jargon "exceptional" was historically used by some people to mean "unusually smart/gifted/talented children" but also used more euphemistically by other people to mean "children with various sorts of disabilities that accordingly require special assistance." A glance at the first few pages of google results for "exceptional children" suggests that the latter meaning is the currently dominant one, but it turns out there's a least one jurisdiction out there where both meanings rather confusingly co-exist as a matter of law, with the definitional section of a statute providing that: "'Exceptional child' means a child with a disability or a gifted and talented child, as defined herein." 31 Del. Code 3101(4).

  28. etv13 said,

    April 3, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

    J.W. Brewer @ 4:20: The first time my mother-in-law bought some of that vanilla ice cream with the tiny dark specks, she threw it out because she thought the specks were some sinister substance — ground-up insects, perhaps.

  29. Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 10:23 pm

    To be clear: I'm supportive of the idea of there being a "typical" range of development, as it's basically a way of expressing a bell curve. I do think we need to use it factually, though, rather than as a straight replacement.

    Average too is something we need to use factually, and is a really good word to use when we use it factually. The problem happens when we stop using it to mean average and use it to replace normal.

    Normal is a culturally enforced concept that is conflated with typical but which actually blends it with cultural ideals and concepts that might not actually be "typical" or average. More and more it's used to other and reinforce us vs them thinking in non-marginalized populations. A lack of "normal" is culturally construed to mean not ok, not acceptable, and in some cases even immoral.

    My post might be about vocabulary, but it's also about the impact the words we use and how we use them has on how we conceptualize things. To me, this is an essential part of why we need words like neurotypical and allistic- it allows us to hold Autistics and Neurodivergent folks as groups that are equal to Allistic and Neurotypical rather than as others in need of a label. It also gives us clear ways to refer to who and how power in social contexts/structures works, which can be really powerful for marginalized people.

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