“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” I heard this a lot growing up, and I have a vivid grade school memory of glaring up at a girl who had neatly recited it at me and spitting back, “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard, and you are stupid for saying it!” She burst into tears. Not, frankly, the finest moment of my youth, but it did get the point across rather well.
Words don’t just have power; words are power, and every time I examine my own language choices I find places where my words are reinforcing the oppressive systems that I otherwise work to dismantle. I’m not talking about getting rid of grossly offensive slurs (I mean: do that too, but that falls under “be a decent human being”), but more about the kinds of words that are not clearly, obviously, 100% offensive, that at some point you have to make a conscious choice about whether or not you’re going to use again.
The word “retarded” is a pretty easy example. The internal argument usually goes something like, “I would never ever refer to a developmentally-disabled person with that word; I only ever say it to refer to situations that are frustrating or needlessly difficult, so that's okay.” The counter-argument goes something like, “You are acting like a jerkface garbagepants.”
Listen, poppet, if that rankles – if you find that your eyes have just narrowed, and your pulse has quickened, and you'd really like to sit me down and string together words like "unwise" and "stifling" and "censorship" to explain how you feel about strangers policing your natural-born right to use all the words in the universe – then this piece is not for you. I don’t have the time or the patience or the desire to explain why some words are offensive even though you think they aren’t. Close the tab; move along.
For the rest of us, though: sometimes, even after making the decision to stop using a word, I still hear myself saying it, time and again. It’s hard to break language patterns and habits. Now what?
I’ve learned that I have to give myself an alternative, replacement word, and – here’s the key – it has to start with the same phoneme (that’s “letter sound”, if you learned to read before the age of Hooked on Phonics). That way, when my brain catches up with my runaway mouth, I can substitute in the new word without much interruption to my speaking rhythm. Example: The user registration flow on that site is not “retarded”, it’s “r…idiculous.” This is why fake-swear pairs like hell/heck and damn/darn work so well: you can change your mind even after you’ve started saying the word out loud.
A (Maybe) Helpful Starter List of Substitutions
Retarded Substitute: ridiculous. Lame Substitute: ludicrous, laughable, ill-advised (if you can pretend you accidentally swallowed the i).
Sexy as a way to describe a feature on a website or a piece of technology or anything other than your partner in the privacy of your home and/or their ear, really. As Relly nicely summed up: would you ever describe the HTML5 canvas element as “erotic”? No, because that’s gross and weird. Same goes for sexy. Substitute: snazzy.
Crazy Substitute: crappy, cranky, crabby. Bonus points for "crabby" being something a 1980s sitcom dad would call me. Nuts Substitute: nonsense, not OK (as in, “You logged me out after 5 minutes?? That is n…ot OK.”) Insane Substitute: incredible, impossible, inconceivable!
You guys as a gender-neutral address for a group. Can we steal second-person-plural options from other dialects and languages? “Y’all” is good, and I could definitely see “you lot” fitting my own language patterns pretty naturally. Bonus option for those who claim some Western PA or Appalachia in their personal histories: yinz.
Those really only work for the full “you guys” usage, though. I’m just as likely to say the short form “guys”, and there are not that many words that start with a G-sound out there. What instead? Friends? Mates? Folks? Amis? Ustedes? This one is really hard.
Most of the words I'm trying to phase out of my speech aren’t used for their definitions as much as for their tone, so swapping for a new word doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. I've found that once I have a solid substitution plan in place, it doesn’t take long before the new word completely replaces the old one in my normal speech.
Eliminating the word "just", though? As in the no-big-deal "you just need to install Vagrant"? Yikes. Still working on it.