Dictionary labels part II: the offensive ‘lunatic’

Posted by on October 03, 2016

© GETTYLast month I began a series of posts looking at style labels in Macmillan Dictionary. These are supplementary tags, like ‘humorous’, ‘impolite’ and ‘old-fashioned’, that help readers understand the nature and use of a word. The first post focused on ‘formal’ and ‘informal’, and this one explores the extreme end of that axis: offensive language. If you’re offended by offensive language, you may prefer to skip this one.

Many words become offensive over time because of changes in society and shifts in perception. For example, decades ago cripple (n.) was widely used to refer to people with a physical disability, especially one that affected their ability to walk. It’s now considered offensive, and is labelled as such in Macmillan Dictionary. The verb cripple is not, however.




Similarly, handicapped (adj.) was once free of pejorative connotation but is now inappropriate in many contexts. Macmillan’s entry labels it ‘old-fashioned’, adding that it is ‘now considered offensive and it is more polite to say that someone is learning disabled, visually impaired, hearing impaired, or simply disabled.’ Some groups, however, reject phrases like hearing impaired, and many people prefer the term deaf over the alternatives.

Retard (n.) and retarded are further along the spectrum of perceived offensiveness. When words go far enough to lose their common status, others take their place – until they too gain derogatory baggage and must be replaced. Linguists sometimes call this the euphemism treadmill.

Offensive words from a public figure can cause controversy. Owen Smith of the UK Labour Party recently apologised for his casual use of the word lunatic, which is in a grey area, acceptability-wise. Most dictionaries do not label it as offensive, but some high-profile stories have helped push it in that direction. Macmillan Dictionary applies the labels ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘offensive’ to lunatic in the sense ‘person with a mental illness’, but not in the sense ‘person behaving in an extreme or dangerous way’. Lunatic fringe, meanwhile, is just labelled ‘informal’.

Macmillan currently labels or describes about 200 usages as ‘offensive’. It also has lists that are useful for checking if a word is problematic or unacceptable. These include insulting terms of ethnicity (mulatto, redskin, yid), sexual orientation (dyke, poof, fag), disability (nutter, vegetable), age (biddy, old bat), and education (peasant, redneck, trash), along with general insults (jerk, bastard, arsehole) and swear words.

Some of these words also have inoffensive uses, so context matters. Geography too can play a role: spaz and spastic are fairly innocuous in the US but objectionable in the UK, and duly labelled as such. The details can be hard to keep up with, but it’s important to try if we want to treat people with kindness and respect.

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Comments (2)
  • I’m surprised to learn that spaz and spastic are considered fairly innocuous in the US. Born and raised in NYC (which may well not be indicative of the US as a whole) I remember being told in the late 60s that they were highly offensive terms and should be dropped from my vocabulary. And I haven’t heard them used for many years. Perhaps this depends on locale within the US. Or whether or not one is raised to have concern for other people’s feelings.

    Posted by Amy Stoller on 14th November, 2016
  • After a couple of high-profile uses (and subsequent apologies) by Tiger Woods and Weird Al Yankovic, Mark Liberman wrote at Language Log about the divergence: how “spaz and the longer form spastic have become innocuous playground slang in the US but a grave insult in the UK”.

    Posted by Stan Carey on 14th November, 2016
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