Did you know the word “sinister” insults lefties??

“Sinister” means left handed, as with this gentleman. (image source: Wikimedia commons)

What I’m writing about is how using some words unintentionally contributes to bias—which is different than knowingly using hateful and spiteful speech. I’ve chosen as examples Gypsies, left handers and red heads, and (more important) usage patterns falling under ableism.  

A lot of the words and phrasings we used are just picked up from friends, family, movies, video and other media, often without conscious thought. My object is to discuss how bias can be almost invisible but important in shaping attitudes. All of us are aware how bias against women and people of color is reinforced by language, but there are other biases contained in the words we use.

There is contentious debate about language use. A recent diary argued against using words like “crazy” to describe Donald Trump. Some comments on the diary saw that as defending Trump, rather than protesting the use of words loaded with bias.

So what’s my point? Be more aware how some words can reinforce stereotypes. I’m not advocating a formulaic political correctness here. I’m advocating becoming more aware of the words you write and how some words reinforce the kinds of stereotypes most of us here oppose. I guess I’m arguing for a kind of extension of empathy.

Please note that I am not equating the categories below. Ableism is far more serious and far more hurtful to people than the others.


Ableism.  This is a catchall category. The term is awkward and because of that, some people may have difficulty taking it seriously. Common American idioms used as slurs refer to mental illness, mental capacity, various physical disabilities, including references to sensory disability in vision, hearing and speech (oddly, there seem to be few referring to disability in taste, smell, touch or color blindness).

Mental capacity. A good place to see varied and common use of this kind is to read Daily Kos diatribes against Donald Trump. The man has been blasted with words like insane, crazy, idiot, moron, imbecile, and other terms. The first two are derogatory to people with mental disabilities, although  extremely common. The last three come from words originally meaning specific low ranges of scores on IQ tests. [One oddity I’ve seen fairly often on DK posts is “moran.” A moran is an age grouping of Maasai warriors, about 13 to 30. I don’t know if it’s meant to be “moron” or is some usage I am not aware of].

 Maybe the most overlooked words in this category relate to the word dumb. The original meaning of the word means loss of speech, or inability to speak. It has a close connection to the word deafDumb came to be associated with stupidity, perhaps because the inability to talk has been interpreted as lack of mental capacity. Common insults based on dumb include dumbing down, dumbass, dummy and dumbf**k.

Deafness and blindness.  Few people these days use old slurs like blind as a bat or deaf as a stone, so there has been some progress in awareness and sensitivity. There are also some common and perhaps acceptable usages such as tone deaf, blind justice and double blind study. But, there are still a good many constructions such as Are you blind? Are you deaf? And those who wear glasses (like me) and recall schooldays, probably can recall being called four eyes.

A term on the rise is lame. It’s been used in lame duck president for a long time, but I’m seeing a lot more of it in expressions like lame excuse or just that’s lame. The word originally referred to a physical disability which might be temporary or permanent, in the old sense of the word crippled.

The numbers of Americans these categories is sizable. If you add all of them together, it’s a substantial fraction of the total population.


Left-handedness. The linguistic bias against left handedness is deep and ancient. The word sinister means left, and dexter right. To be ambidextrous means literally to have two right hands. Dexterity means excellent physical ability, but literally refers to right handedness

Phrases making biased references to lefties not particularly common. A left-handed compliment is one that is not really complimentary. Leading off on the left foot is an image of a clumsy dancer, but also can refer to things like making a bad first impression. Gauche is French for left handed. The unspoken societal privileging of right handedness is deeply ingrained. For example, doing something correctly is sometimes called the right way. We speak of knowing right from wrong, of God-given rights. A one-time common expression for something utterly expected is out of left field.

Estimates vary but something like 10% of the American population is left handed. Lefties do have some advantages in some sports, but the default for keyboards, appliances  and controls is right handedness.


Red headedness. There’s a long history of bias against red headed people, although there’s some countervailing patterns as well. Redheads are often thought to be tempermental, prone to anger and emotion. There’s not much in the way of common expressions other than calling redheads things like Carrot Top, Red or Ginger. These often come with assumptions about behaviors like impulsiveness and sexuality. Redheadedness is most common in Americans with Irish or Scandinavian ancestry. It appears to be more serious in Britain, where some people are concerned with gingerism, bias against redheads. Redheaded women are sometimes assumed to be available sexually and redheaded men as less masculine. Estimates of the American population of redheads vary, but about 2% is a common estimate.


The Romani. The common term Gypsy refers to what are now most often called Roma, sometimes Romani. The word supposedly came from Egyptian, when the people migrated from India into the Middle East and Europe a thousand years ago. They have suffered pogroms, forced conversions, loss of children and genocide (the Nazis killed several hundred thousands). No one really seems to know for sure, but there seems to be something of a consensus that about a million. The stereotype is one of roving bands of thieves.

A couple of common expressions show the unintended bias. To gyp someone is to cheat them, perhaps by selling fake label goods. Then there’s the term applied to a roving, unlicensed taxi, a gypsy cab. There aren’t any other common expressions, perhaps reflecting how Roma people are invisible to the mainstream. The common estimate of the American population hover around one million.


Statistics on blindness/ visual disability  Visual  [Stats from National Federation for the Blind]

Story on international left handedness Lefties [from Medical Daily 8/13/2013)

Statistics on deafness/ hearing disability Hearing [From Gallaudet College Library]

Essay on Rom (Gypsy) community Romani community [E. Heimlich at Countries and their Cultures]

Collection of essays on different aspects of  ableism . {Huffington Post 1 January 2017].

Deep knowledge,everyday.
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Happy Reading.

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