In this issue’s review of Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys in Mission Unpluckable, a very funny book about a quartet of reformed villains, is a callout of “language devaluing of mental diversity (‘freak out,’ ‘loco,’ etc.) that may turn some readers off.” The rather clunky “language devaluing of mental diversity” had originally been phrased “ableist language,” which sent me into a brown study.
I am more or less familiar with the concept of ableism, most usually defined as discrimination against people with disabilities. But I had two concerns with the reviewer’s decision to highlight her qualm about the language she excerpted. First, I wanted to avoid the jargon-y term “ableist language,” and second, in the context of the book, the language was not used to insult or demean a character with disabilities. I wrote to her with my concerns, and she supplied the alternative. (I’m not sure either one of us is in love with it, but sometimes you just gotta move on.)
In addressing my second concern, my reviewer acknowledged that the language was not used to insult or to Other anyone. However, she continued, “I compare this a little to terms like ‘gypsy.’ Using it to refer to Romani people is called out as a slur, yet using it in common parlance (‘we've been gypped’) is often not called out, is in fact normalized, and the harm continues. Ableist language is just as tricky.”
As I pondered, I found myself thinking of my own use of language. To be sure, my personal lexicon is full of “language devaluing of mental diversity”: nutjob, wacko, loony-tunes. How many times a day do I describe myself or somebody else as “freaking out”? These words are evocative and useful if not particularly nice. “That was crazy” has a punch that “that was ill-advised” does not. If I were to eliminate them, I would miss them.
However, though I grew up using “gyp” as a verb, as an adult I do not, despite the fact that “what a gyp!” is so much chewier than “what a bad deal.” I miss it, but even though I didn’t consciously use it as an ethnic slur when I was a child—didn’t realize the connection till I was in college—I do understand that its continued use facilitates the marginalization of an ethnic group. (In happy coincidence, we also review in this issue Ossiri and the Bala Mengro, by Romani storyteller Richard O’Neill, with co-author Katharine Quarmby and illustrator Hannah Tolson. Check it out.)
I suspect my reviewer is too young ever to have heard “jewed” instead of “gypped,” but I am not, though it was falling into disuse even in my childhood. I imagine there were—possibly still are—people who longed to use “jew” as le mot juste. But they don’t, because it’s not.
So my New Year’s resolution is this: to be mindful of my own use and our reviews’ use of “language devaluing of mental diversity” and to find other words that do the job. (And to find a better phrase than “language devaluing of mental diversity”—any ideas?)
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor.