Hurtful words

There are many words I like the sound of, really enjoy saying out loud, that offend and hurt people. I was once quite addicted to the word “spaz.” When it was pointed out to me (I was young) what it actually meant and how it could hurt other people I tried really hard not to use anymore.

I slip though.

I used to use “gay” to mean uncool. Despite having grown up with lots of gay and lesbian friends. I didn’t even make the connection till I started hearing people at school use “gay” in deliberately hateful, homophobic ways. I stopped using it pronto.

I have used the word “girlie” and told people not to behave like a girl. I am a girl.

“Spaz” and “lame” and “mongy” and “crip” and “gimp” are all words that say being able-bodied is in every way better than not being able bodied—that the non-abled bodied people aren’t as human.

And these are just the obvious words. There are so many ways in which assumptions about sexuality, gender, able -bodiedness, skin colour are woven into our everyday metaphors. “White” is good in a million different ways. The “white hats” are the good guys. (And all too often white actors are the good guys in movies. Don’t get me started on the casting of the Avatar movie.) White lies are less bad lies. “Are you blind?!” “Are you deaf?!” are often asked in situations where there is a moral failing in not seeing and not hearing. It’s not far off implying that there’s something morally wrong with being blind or deaf.

But I have gay friends who use “gay” to mean uncool. I used to fence with a paraplegic guy who called himself “mongy”, “para” and “crip”. If they use those words that then way why can’t I?

Because they have earned that right. Because they are the ones who are hurt by those words. Because they are mocking themselves, which is entirely different from being mocked by someone else who does not understand or care about them. Who is saying these words makes all the difference in the world. And, yes, white, straight, affluent men should be held to a different standard. They should be more careful about what they say. They have far more power to hurt and discriminate.

The problem with talking about hurtful words and language is that so often it’s contextual. There are times and places where you can deploy these words without causing offence. Although I am fond of swearing I don’t on my blog because I know it offends some of my readers. Of course, I still run into trouble over what constitutes swearing. I have offended people using words I don’t even think of as swearing. It’s tricky. All of this stuff is tricky. But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all work hard not to offend people. Especially people who are in weaker positions than we are.

I have no problem with people calling me a honky or calling me an Aussie as though that’s a bad thing because there’s no long history of discrimination for being either of those things. Nor do I feel even slightly bad about referring to English people as “Poms”. That is not a word with a long history of oppression. English people are not being beaten up, kept out of jobs, and denied their civil rights because of their Englishness. And, yeah, I do think people who whinge about it should get over themselves. Besides, you pommy bastards, you know we Aussies say it with love and affection and no Colonial resentment whatsoever. Some of my best friends are Poms . . .

I still love the sound of “spazmatron”. I love how it feels exploding out of my mouth. But that pleasure pales compared to the pain it can cause. I wish “spaz” had a different origin so I could keep using it. But it doesn’t and it really does hurt people.

My real world policy on hurtful language is that I try to avoid using it. I try to avoid causing offense. Sometimes I fail. Probably often I fail. I don’t think that makes me a bad person. I don’t think anyone is a a bad person for saying thoughtless things.1 I think you’re a bad person if you don’t care that your words hurt people.

How does all of this translate into my fiction?

I have seen many authors attacked for deploying words in their fiction that people are offended by. Often there seems to be a confusion between the views of characters in a book and the author’s views. Many people seem to think that authors believe every single thing every character in their books say.

That view is absurd.

In Magic’s Child Jay-Tee and Tom have a debate about religion. Jay-Tee is a devout Catholic, Tom is an atheist. If authors’ views and characters’ views are identical then I must be a devout Catholic atheist. And my head must explode several times a day.

I have created teenage characters who use “lame” and “spaz” without thinking. Just as many do in the real world. They say and do things I don’t approve of. My foremost responsibility in writing stories is that they be true. That I avoid as many false notes as I possibly can. Sometimes my characters use hurtful words and behave badly. And frankly, if they were perfectly behaved at all times it would be a lot harder generating any plot, and the books would be extremely dull.

Although many of my books have fantastic elements I work very hard to ground them in the real. To accurately reflect the world I live in. Using words that some people find hurtful is part of that. Writing about the ways people hurt one another is also part of that.

You could almost say that’s what my job is.

  1. You can be thoughtless and hurtful and out and out vicious without using a single word one of these words. []


  1. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    I’m so with you on all of this. If you only create characters who speak without hurtful words, that really limits the kinds of stories you can tell. It means that some readers will be hurt by the characters in your books, but I think this is necessary. Reading is about more than consolation. It’s about exploring sometimes painful things. You have to bring the pain in order to examine it.

    As for saying potentially hurtful words generally, I think the trick is to remain flexible and open to change. I knew someone who used the word “Jew” to mean to cheat someone out of money. He didn’t even know it had anything to do with Jewish people. I thought this was strange until I used the word “gyp” to signify the exact same thing. He informed me that this was a reference to gypsies. I didn’t even know.

    Now we both know.

    Oh and, for the record, I actually like when people of color refer to white folks as “Snowflake.” I think it’s lovely. But not nearly as funny as “Cracker.” But then, being white, I’m not on the hurt side of the color line, so I can afford to be magnanamous about it.

  2. Tim on #

    Absolutely brilliant, both in relation to real life and fiction. In real life, we often use hurtful words unintentionally and even automatically. Even though, like you, I have a lot of gay and lesbian friends I still find it hard to not say “that’s so gay,” just because society views it as an acceptable and normal thing to say. I’m trying harder every day not to use hurtful words, but they do occasionally slip out.

    I do love the series of ads that this: is a part of though. Definitely gets the point across.

    In fiction, I think it’s definitely important that we do have flawed characters portrayed; because no human is perfect. Only a very strange person would believe that an author approves of everything that their characters do. Not to say anything against religious people as a group, but this makes me think back to an example where I heard a Christian ranting about Harry Potter because (shock, gasp and horror!) he got angry, and sometimes did selfish things. Essentially Harry was a bad person because he wasn’t perfect! But if a character is perfect then they can’t go on a personal journey and develop; which means no novel. After all, one of the main focuses of a story is the development of its characters from people who are not perfect, into people who are still imperfect but might be better or worse because of their experiences. Character arcs are one of, if not the, most important part of a story – and where does one go when one has a perfect character?

  3. Eric Luper on #

    Wait a sec… I know of a forthcoming 1930s novel that is a victim of this very issue.

  4. Justine on #

    Eric: Actually the post inspired by our conversation is still in the works.

  5. Shveta on #

    Thank you, Justine. I would like to add another here. Associating the use of courage with testicles; i.e., saying someone has balls or is ballsy, whether that person is male or female. No. Just no.

  6. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I agree that one should not use words that denote a specific subset of humanity to imply deficiency that it isn’t connected to. “Gay” meaning “stupid,” “girly” meaning “weak” etc. That has always bothered me, even as a child, when I was still parsing out how “gay” could once mean “happy” and now meant “homosexual.”

    I do say lame, however, usually to denote something that is broken/underperforming/crippled. That feels totally different to me, but I’m interested in arguments about it. How often is the word “lame” used to mean a physically disabled person anymore?

    I feel less compunction, however, to monitor speech when you are actually describing something using a word that means what you are describing. For instance, if something is really illogical and weird and baffling, I don’t feel bad about saying it’s crazy or lunatic. I don’t feel like that is some sort of slam against the mentally ill.

    Nor do I have a problem of saying something is ballsy. Just because only males have balls? So what? If I say someone has an eagle eye, am I being discriminatory to owls, who also have great vision? A positive association doesn’t necessarily imply a negative association with something else. I’m a woman and have no balls, and I do hate the whole “like a girl” thing, but I have no problem with the opposite — with going “be a man” or “ballsy.”

    You can go way overboard with some of this stuff, IMO, and end up with “herstory” and other improper etymological PC-ing.

    And no, you can’t be held responsible for the things your characters say. My characters say all kinds of stuff I’d never say. Villains AND heroes.

  7. Patrick on #

    As a white affluent man, when I call upon my powers – should I say


    “Thundercats, HO!”


    “Go-go Gadget Arms!”

  8. Patrick on #

    Girls keep their balls on the inside, that’s all. Women are Ballsy!! Mental note: I’ve never used that word before and it really does feel weird using it now…

  9. Julia Rios on #

    It’s really hard to stop saying things when they’re deeply ingrained. I have a lot of trouble with retarded and lame. I also tend to describe things as crazy a lot, which has only recently come to my attention as another one I maybe ought to work on cutting out.

    Characters are another thing entirely, though. Sometimes you have to let them say things that you might never say, or else the story will suffer. Sometimes you have to let them do things you don’t approve of, too… Which makes me wonder how you decided to handle the smoking issue in your ’30s book.

  10. Kiera on #

    I never feel bad about saying things are crazy. As Lauren McLaughlin metioned, I had no idea gyp had anything to do with gypsies. Nor did I know spaz had to do with disability. But I think some things like gay and retarded shouldn’t be said as freely as they are because these are terms we still use today in different connotations.

  11. Shveta on #

    Diana, the main reason that bothers me is because you would never hear a man called the equivalent with “ovaries.” Whatever that would be. Or “be a woman.” So it’s inherently saying that the masculine is superior, and we should try to be like that–a difference of genders, not species.

    But I don’t want to hijack Justine’s blog, so I’ll stop here. 🙂

  12. katsie on #

    There’s a website, run by the Special Olympics folks, dedicated to stopping the casual use of the word “retard” – Your post reminded it me of it.

  13. Patrick on #

    I vow to take up the cause and tell people that whatever they are doing takes some serious ovaries.

  14. Tole on #

    My way around words that might be offensive to some people was just to combine them, ie ‘glame’ and ‘gaytarded’ which had the intention of signilling that i just meant it in fun, but really could have just offended twice as many people.

  15. Rachel on #

    1) I’ve been trying to stop saying “gypped” (as in “I can’t believe the only preview at the movie was for My Little Pony! What a gyp!”), but it’s very difficult and I’m not even sure it’s hurtful.

    2) My non-Jewish friends are always shocked when I refer to myself as a Jew. Apparently the PC term is “Jewish person”. Um, what?

    3) I was informed today that “disabled” is impolite. Since my disabled mother uses this word with no tone of self-deprecation, I assume that this is not true. Once again, advocates are getting more PC than the actual “offended” people.

  16. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Shveta, I’m not sure I can get behind that. I don’t agree that it assumes the alternative is inherent.

    At a certain point, a metaphor is just a metaphor, a cigar is just a cigar. Do you also get upset when something is described as mother’s milk because fathers cannot produce breast milk?

    It’s not offensive, and it’s not likening a subset of people with a stereotypical negative attribute that has nothing to do with them.

  17. jenngadget on #


    It’s not your logic that is incorrect, it’s the fact that you don’t seem to be following it through to it’s inevitable conclusion. (or, worse, you are not bothered by it)

    We say that people with good vision (or that are visually perceptive) have eagle eyes because, well, eagles have good vision.

    Following that same logic, to say that people who have courage = people who have balls equates having courage with having balls, ie – being male.

    Just as a person with good vision is like an eagle (in certain ways) a person who is courageous is like a man (in certain ways). According to those metaphors anyway.

    Which is why the “balls” phrase is FAIL. Because, while eagles have better vision than many other animals, men are not more courageous than women. To use the phrase is to suggest otherwise, no matter whether you think men are more courageous or not.

    Patrick – I know lots of people that do that already – as a sort of inside joke. 🙂

  18. Clix on #

    I find it quite ironic that in many Spanish cultures, testicles are associated with courage and strength, but a common slang term for them is “huevos” – eggs – which (biologically speaking) come from ovaries! ;D

  19. Morva Shepley on #

    Just followed a link to this post.

    In some show I saw:

    She says, “You’ve got ovaries.”
    He says, “I’ll take that in the spirit is was intended.”

    On the ‘gay’ thing, I have to keep explaining to my kids that it used to be a word meaning happy, that it was adopted by homosexuals to fight off all the bad words used to describe them, and now, for some unfathomable reason, has been adopted to mean something bad. It seems to me a little more than coincidence that when gays find a positive word for themselves it gets given a bad meaning.

    Now, I never thought of Jews or Gypsies in relation to “I’ve been gypped,” which is kind of a hard, jagged word, maybe associated with rock, and sounds like the feeling it’s being applied to. Now I’ll have to think again.

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