Tuesday, August 05, 2008

That's "special"

I've noticed that the word "special" has gained a new set of usage rules. Some time during my grade school years, it was declared that we were no longer allowed to use the word retarded. The preferred term was special. I think advocates of political correctness were planning on the new terminology changing the way people viewed the mentally handicapped. Instead of the pejorative word retarded (a word which, prior to its adaptation by a previous generation of advocates, wasn't pejorative at all, and simply meant delayed or slowed), people would ideally look upon the mentally challenged as merely different; not necessarily any better or worse than everyone else, but special in their own way. But I suspect people have a pretty deep-seated discomfort with the severely mentally handicapped, and no change in lexicon will overcome that.

In fact, the effect has been the opposite. Rather than people shifting their views from retarded to special, the word special has changed meaning. Today on the bus, I heard a few younger people using the word special to mean retarded. They used it in exactly the context we said "retarded" when I was in second grade. The net effect of the politically-correct adaptation of special has been to raise a generation (mine) that doesn't use the word much at all, and a younger generation who don't use the word in any context other than referring to the mentally challenged. Plus, a set of adults (older than me by more than ten years or so) who still use special to mean special, and who sound a little silly to the younger generations.

And, a bit of anecdotal comedy. A school I worked for in the 1990s originally had a "grandparents' day", but it was decided that this might damage the self-esteem of the kids whose grandparents either were dead or lived too far away to come to school. So they renamed it "special persons day", and kids could bring any adults they chose. This was a decision made by people significantly older than me. For me and the teachers my age, our mental picture for a "special person" was "mentally handicapped", and there was a bit of snickering whenever the administration talked about "special persons day". Better, the students grew up with the lexical shift, so they made occasional snide comments to the kids whose grandparents didn't come. Which probably wasn't good for their self esteem either. The administration remained blissfully ignorant of all this, in the fashion of school administrations everywhere.

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