Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Retarded Issue

OK, I’m back. I’ve heard from a number of you asking why I haven’t posted anything in a few weeks. Some of you even told me I was slacking off. Well, the reason I hadn’t posted anything was because I was on vacation.

Yeah, I know, I could’ve posted from on the road, especially since I took my laptop with me, and every motel we stayed at had WiFi. I had intended to do that. But you know, at the end of a long day of sightseeing and driving, you just want to plop down on your nice comfy bed, and not write anything except a few postcards.

But I suppose that, as some of my students might say, that’s a retarded excuse, and that gets right to the heart of the matter. Is using the words “retarded” and “retard” as insults insensitive to people who are “developmentally disabled?” Should using those words as insults be considered insensitive to people who are developmentally disabled?

I don’t know.

I know that there are people who really do get upset when they hear those words thrown around as casual insults. These are usually people who know someone who suffers from some form of developmental disability, and I understand what they’re saying. On the other hand, I know that over time the English language changes.

It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that when the words moron and idiot are thrown around as casual insults. Yet both of these words used to be accepted clinical terms for specific levels of mental retardation. Now they’re just garden-variety insults that no one get much bent out of shape about.

In fact, while typing a paper for a friend 20 years ago, I was astounded to hear that the former Syracuse Developmental Center was originally founded as the New York State School for Idiots. More people now are shocked that the school was called that than are offended by hearing the word "idiot" used as a general insult. But it was the proper term at the time, and has become insensitive in retrospect because succeeding generations have used it as an insult, and it fell out of clinical use as a result.

As a teacher, I do firmly get on my kids when they use "retarded" as an insult; just as I do when they similarly use "gay." However, knowing what I know about the language, I often wonder why we don't make a similar fuss about us using "idiot" and "moron." In fact, a common joke I use in my computer classes is warning them about the dreaded ID-10-T error, which if you write it out without the hyphens becomes ID10T, which of course looks like idiot (unless the student writes it out as IDTENT, which has happened, and we won't even go there).

I suspect that we are in a very uneasy "transition time" where the word "retarded" is going the route of the words before it. I suspect that as those terms fell into the vernacular, they stopped being used clinically; and perhaps that same thing will happen with "retarded." Perhaps it's already happening, after all, I don't regularly hear people referred to as mentally retarded anymore, but instead, I hear of them as having Down's Syndrome or being developmentally challenged. Heck, even the American Association on Mental Retardation changed its name a few years ago to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. So perhaps here the issue isn't so much the public's use of the word as an insult, but some people’s insistence on hanging onto that term both as a clinical descriptor and a source of identity.

I think the time has come to let it go.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

It's A Grand Old Flag

Every time we went to the mall, when I was a kid, we’d see it just over the crest of Bloomfield Ave in Verona, as we turned on to NJ-23. I checked to make sure that they’re still there and they are. At least the main offices are. The actual plant has been moved a few miles away to Roseland. I’m talking about Annin and Co, the world’s largest maker of flags, and official supplier to the United Nations.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what you can and can’t do, or what you should and shouldn’t be allowed to do, to what is probably one of their biggest selling products – your basic red, white, and blue American flag. The United States Flag Code, which many of us learned as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts is an official set of guidelines for flag design and treatment, but it doesn’t have the force of law. There are, however, those out there who want to create a Constitutional Amendment that would make it illegal for you to order a flag from Annin, or any other supplier, and burn it.

I don’t agree with these people.

I understand that they hold the American flag, and all the rights that it stands for, highly in their hearts. I understand that they consider burning an American flag for any reason other than its proper disposal to be the utmost in desecration. But I believe the one of the rights it stands for is the right to take the flag that you have paid for your with own cold hard cash, and burn it if you want, as long as you’re not violating any pollution ordinances.

That’s right. I believe that our flag stands for the right for us to destroy or deface it, as long as it’s your personal flag, and not one that you’ve taken from someone else.

Ironically, this means that while many have burned the flag in protest, it is indeed possible to burn it in celebration – in celebration that we have a Constitutionally protected right to do just that.

In fact, my two favorite magicians, Penn and Teller, have come to the same conclusion. As part of their Las Vegas act, they take an American flag, stuff it into a rolled up copy of the Bill of Rights from the Constitution, apparently set it on fire, and the Bill of Rights – the truly important thing, the thing which the flag represents – remains unscathed.

But my description here doesn’t do it justice. You have to see it and listen to Penn’s monologue for yourself, in order to get the full effect. Fortunately, that, like so many things these days, is available as a YouTube video.

Then, when you’re done watching that, check out what happens when they perform that same trick at the White House on “The West Wing.”

And then, think about all of these things on Sunday, which is Flag Day.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Words We Use - 1

A few weeks ago I read an article in Time Magazine about a very successful sex education program, and one of the things this program was proud of doing was teaching kids the "proper" names for sexual organs and activities, rather than the "street" terms.

Now, I've had a long-standing beef with the idea is that there are "proper" and "vulgar" names for our sexual organs and sexual activities

Why? Because those "proper" names are merely the Latin-based clinical medical terms that we wouldn't use for any other parts of the body. After all, do we talk about putting the ring on the bride's "digit," in particular her "digitus quartus?" Of course not. We call a finger by its common English name: finger.

So what's up with using the "proper" terms of penis, testicles, vagina, etc instead of those words everyone else knows, and a few cute euphemisms that I've heard over the years? Well, frankly, everything sounds good in Latin. Or to put it a little differently, nothing sounds bad in Latin. When I was in high school, I heard of a family on Long Island whose crest included the inscription Semper superamus - fraudamus. Sounds impressive. But when you translated it into English, it became, "We always win. We cheat." The entire point of the Latin-based terms was to make it possible to talk about sex in "polite" company.

But here's my real problem with those terms. They're just too cold and clinical. They're not warm, fuzzy, and user-friendly. They're Gray's Anatomy, and not The Joy of Sex. For Pete's sake, they're medical terms.

Yes, I know The Joy of Sex uses those cold medical terms. There is something to be said for a standard terminology for public discourse. But why couldn't the standard terminology be the Anglo-Saxon terms that we're told "aren't proper," but all know?

And the Latin terms don't really mean what we make them mean in Latin. If my Internet sources are correct, "penis" comes from the word for "tail" and "vagina" comes from the word for "sheath." Looks like a little Roman slang, if you ask me. I wonder what the ancient Romans really called their "naughty bits."

With that in mind, I've had an image in my head for years of some poor little Roman kid getting his mouth washed out with soap for saying one of what we would consider the "proper" terms, and his mother telling him that from now on she only wants to hear him use what we would consider one of the offensive Anglo-Saxon terms.

Now that I think about it, this gets me to wondering. Is English the only language that hides its sexual terminology behind Latin words, or do other languages do it too? Are there any French, Spanish, Italian, German, etc speakers out there who want to let me know how their languages deal with this?

But getting back to the point, I just can't imagine anyone using those clinical terms behind closed doors. That would seem to me about as much of a turn-on as starting off the evening by asking your date if she'd like a collection of Dianthus caryophyllus. I'm betting that, in private, most people are using the good old "street" or "vulgar" terms that I consider informal and "user-friendly."

So I decided to find out once and for all. I've set up a two-question, anonymous, online survey, asking about sexual terminology. You can get to it by going to www.tinyurl.com/keg-terminology. 86 people have taken it so far. I figure that if all of my blog readers take it, and then forwards it on to their friends, I might get a whopping hundred.

I'll let you know what the results are in a few weeks.