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Sticks and stones semantics
Sudie Crouch

There have been a few words I have tried to eradicate from my child’s vocabulary.

Fat is one of them.

Retarded is another.

These are words that have bothered me for various reasons for a long time.

Fat is a word that taunted me as a child and is a word I have called myself, even in the times I was frighteningly skinny.

Retarded is a word that just shouldn’t be said.

There are other words that are just hurtful as well, and they all vary in their sting depending on their intent.

Does that mean bad words don’t sometimes fall out of my mouth for various reasons?
I’m not about to lie and say they don’t.

In moments of anger I have heatedly used hurtful epitaphs, not to anyone’s face mind you, but I have uttered them in furious outbursts, usually in the confines of my car or locked in the bathroom.

Not some of my finest moments.

Other words have floated around lately, words that I thought had been stricken from the vernacular, that created conversations as to the power, weight, and importance of words.

More importantly, the conversation focused on how some words can be used to hurt and are never okay, regardless of the relationship between the people using them.

And as I try to be vigilant about the words that are uttered and said about people, two words that I didn’t even think about have found themselves on my radar.

Dumb and stupid.

Being a parent makes one hyper-aware of the words that are said.

You expect the occasional swear word to slip out as a means of pushing the boundaries.

You wait for a teacher to send you a note saying your child repeated words that are unacceptable and she wonders where he heard them.

Dumb and stupid seem to be innocent words, uttered about things that are common and everyday.

“That’s so stupid,” I have muttered under my breath when I hear something I don’t agree with.

“How dumb,” has been whispered about instructions on the back of the pizza box.

It wasn’t until I heard the words come out of my child’s mouth that I realized how these words that seemed so benign to a degree could hurt.

He wasn’t even saying the words in a mean manner. But hearing him say them made me realize how hurtful they could be.

“Who was dumb?” I asked for clarification.

“Not who, Mama. What. And it was the rules. The rules are so dumb and stupid.”

I can understand feeling that way as a teenager. Rules do feel that way at times, even when we are adults, and we appreciate them.

“So, it wasn’t a person?”

He shook his head no.

“Why would that matter?” he asked sincerely.

It would matter for many reasons, I thought.

But I could see what was confusing. We say things – and people – are dumb and stupid all the time.

We do it to be funny, to be mean, to be hateful, and even when we are just irritated by them.

Mama has always taken offense when I have commented something she said was dumb or stupid.

“I am not stupid,” she said.
“I didn’t say you were,” I reply.

“You said my reaction was stupid; that’s the same thing.”
“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is.”
In my mind, it wasn’t but most of our communication is the other person’s perception of what we said. If we are belittling them or at least make them feel like we are making fun of them, odds are they won’t listen to us.

“I don’t like those words,” I told my child after thinking about some of the heavier implications. 

He was confused; they have been words he’s heard me say.


“Because calling someone dumb or stupid is not nice,” I said. “Someone can’t help that.”

“They can’t?” he asked.

“No, they can’t. Dumb traditionally speaks more to their intellect, or capacity to learn.  Not everyone learns at the same speed or level. So, I really don’t like that word at all.”

He understood that part.

“What about stupid?” he asked. “Is it the same?”

I took a deep breathe. In my mind, stupid was different. Stupid could mean someone was choosing to be ignorant despite the information that had been presented to them.

Stupid, I explained, had some application in certain circumstances as long as it was used to address an action or behavior and not a person.

He nodded.
“So, it is better to call someone’s actions stupid but not the person. And never dumb.”

“Right,” I said. “But it would just be better if we didn’t use it at all. We need to think about how we would feel if someone said that to us.”

Perhaps, if we did that, none of our words would have a hurtful sting.