Campaign veers from P.C. path

February 10, 2000|By Jan Freeman

THE PRESIDENTIAL campaign season has been pretty tame so far, languagewise, so we were probably overdue for something juicy. Apparently we got it a week ago, when Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan -- both Bill Bradley supporters -- tried to speak on behalf of their guy at a Gore rally in New Hampshire, and got dissed and dirtied for their pains.

While details are still in dispute, Mr. Kerrey has told some reporters he was called a loser and a cripple, and a New York Post report says Mr. Nadler was jeered as fatso. Both were allegedly splattered with mud by Gore supporters (and here we thought mudslinging was just a colorful metaphor).

Nasty as these epithets are, they could be considered progress. Its not so long ago that we had scumbag from Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana and Hymietown from Jesse Jackson. But when a South Carolina state senator called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People a bunch of retarded people last month, the candidates denounced his language (though Mr. Bush had to think about it a bit too long, considering that his mom probably told him 40 years ago not to use retarded as an insult). Maybe the candidates have secretly pledged to use only the words they picked up on the playground, and well be hearing them trade insults like dork, dweeb, pond scum, and four-eyes.

In this latest dust-up, though, the focus is on cripple, and it brought to mind an e-mail I got last year from Peter OHara of Vineyard Haven. He objected to a sentence referring to after effects that leave many open-heart surgery patients mentally hobbled, on the grounds that hobbled was the politically correct cop-out. Writers -- seem more and more reluctant to use the perfectly good and ancient word cripple, he said. These words are not interchangeable. You can be crippled without being hobbled, or hobbled without being crippled.

He has a point, it turns out, about the decline of cripple. In the Boston Globe, the word (in all its forms) appeared in only 60 percent as many stories last month as in a comparable period 20 years ago. (This is a very rough count, with no distinction between noun and verb, literal and metaphorical, physiological and military uses of the words.) And its true that cripple, noun and verb, is an ancient word, first found in 10th-century English to mean a lame or disabled person. But hobble is hardly a PC novelty: It shows up in the 14th century, meaning to wobble, and hence, of a person, to walk with a limp. So you can be both hobbled and crippled.

Indeed, one sample in the Oxford English Dictionary finds them together: Many cripples were seen hobbling about.

As for the political correctness issue -- well, long before PC was invented, many of us learned that you didnt call people cripples, as if that were the sum and substance of their being. Applying that thinking to other conditions has brought some cumbersome locutions, its true -- people with disabilities, rather than the disabled, or people with AIDS rather than AIDS victims. But the point is to remind us that the handicap is not the person (a point not easy, apparently, for humans to grasp).

Look at Stephen Hawking -- hes barely mobile, yet he can do theoretical physics and ditch his wife for another woman. Crippled is as crippled does, as our grandmothers might have said.

Often, too, the euphemism is a temporary stage in usage: Many an oppressed group has reclaimed an offensive epithet for its own. Black is beautiful, were here, were queer, girl power -- some disabled people even embrace the word cripple.

As for our candidates -- each flawed in his own way -- theyll have plenty of time to reveal their handicaps. We can only hope theyll keep the invective at a 9-year-olds level, and save their creativity for more important matters.

Jan Freeman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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