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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Insane, Blind, and Deaf and Dumb

Before throwing any stones in my direction, let me simply say that the Constitution of the Great State of Ohio contains the above words and phrases. I grew up with this sort of language and recall finding the phrase "deaf and dumb" to be somewhat disturbing since "dumb" was and is ambiguous, with its primary meanings being "lacking the ability to speak" and "lacking intelligence." The latter meaning has always been the more salient for me, which is the origin of my problem with it. It was hard not to think of this other meaning even after understanding that "dumb" meant "mute" in that linguistic context. Indeed, I suspect that the there was a time when persons who could neither hear nor speak were seen as dumb in the sense of "lacking intelligence."

The words "idiot" and "insane" have ancient histories going back to a time before there was an English language and will likely continue to be used. However, to its credit, the Ohio Legislature has just passed a bill ridding the Ohio Revised Code of these words. It seems that "deaf and dumb" does not appear.

The Columbus Dispatch writes:
The changes will make Ohio law more sensitive and "help to reduce the stigma of mental illness," said Sen. Robert F. Spada, R-North Royalton.
The sort of legal language that will be "cleaned up" is:
If such building or premises [in which intoxicating beverages are sold] belong to a minor, insane person, or idiot, his guardian having control thereof shall be liable and account to his ward for all damages on account of such use and occupation, and the liabilities for such fines, costs, and damages.
Senator Spada's remark suggests that political correctness was the motivation for this change of language but there are better reasons. The terms "insane" and "idiot" are too imprecise to be of much legal use. Interestingly, in the same issue of the paper, we are told that persons of limited intelligence are not necessarily at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining wealth. So, maybe being an idiot is not all bad.

I have done no word frequency check for the word "dumb" to see which reading of the word is the more salient these days but the Webster's on line dictionary has as its first four meanings, glosses making reference to some problem with speaking, followed by a use I have never heard of, and then giving us a gloss making reference to a lack of mental acuity. The use I have never heard of is:
lacking some usual attribute or accompaniment; especially : having no means of self-propulsion
Though the dictionary puts the reference to a limitation of intelligence far down on its list, I suspect that it is, in fact, the most common in use.

According to About.com, Gallaudet University began not as a university but as an elementary school. However, in 1864, this site claims that President Lincoln signed a bill that authorized this school, to be called the "National College for the Deaf and Dumb," to offer college degrees. Perhaps at that time the meaning "mute" for "dumb" was highly salient when accompanied with "deaf."

Though the legislature will rid state law of the terms, "insane" and "idiot," nothing will be done about the language of the state constitution. Indeed, it is difficult to see how that might happen. The constitution contains a provision for a constitutional convention to be held every twenty years but I can't see that happening. The problem is that holding a convention would open the door to all manner of miscreants. I can see the NRA demanding a provision requiring that every household have a minimum of one rapid fire weapons such as was used on the Virginia State University campus recently. And adding an amendment dictating that each of these phrases either be deleted or replaced with more accurate and less offensive language would create a Catch 22 situation in which in order to rid the Constitution of this language, the Constitution would have to include it.

By the way, on an irrelevant note, if you are one of the people who thinks "a mute point" is what should be said when "a moot point" is what is meant, rush to your dictionary for help.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Omar Cruz said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:05 PM

 
Blogger Phil said...

Hey, Mike, long time. I remember when we applied for a marriage license (in 1974) in Bowling Green, we had to answer a question as to whether either of us was an "imbecile". In an unusual contradiction to my father's opinion, I answered "no". The rest is history.

11:14 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Hey, Phil, would your wife agree today as to your original answer to the question?

10:10 AM

 
Blogger Der Sankt said...

is it okay for me to refer to this entryon my blog??

wowees! i was searching for stuff like spanglish, creole, etc. Your blog is like a whiff of fresh air...

before i go on about the nuances of deaf mute and deaf dumb in the deaf community--that alone could be enough for a book..i want to say: 'damn!'

ive was a student at gallaudet and never once did anyone mention that it was originally an elementary school. uhm.

an influential deaf lady named Ella Mae Lentz brought up the deafmute issue not toolong ago...she was asing the community to see if we were ready to 'reclaim' that word...

the reaction was crazy. many people, both deaf and hearing, didnt like the word mute because to them it indicated that the person did not make sounds. They felt that its a misnomer because they do, indeed, make noise, have partial ability to speak, etc...

i on the other hand feel that the word deafmute is harmless and in fact, honest to the nature of our inability to hear and speak without an interpreter... i feel that deafmute is better applied to the prelinguisitically deaf people than late deafened individuals.

perhaps u can better explain the true definition of mute and how a better attitude could be adopted with this terminology..

der sankt
http://blog.benvess.com

3:35 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

You may certainly refer to my stuff. I appreciate the interest.

8:38 AM

 
Blogger Der Sankt said...

Just letting you know that I've wrote an entry on my blog--

http://blog.benvess.com/?p=75

correct me if you think i might have misunderstood anything.

Thankees!
Ben

3:22 PM

 
Blogger Jessie said...

Thank you for this entry. I was originally looking for the origins of the phrase "deaf and dumb", but this did just as well. My husband is deaf, and explained to me how he is often perceived as being less intelligent simply because of his inability to hear. I have always thought this was wrong, but lately I have been wondering where exactly that idea came from, and how the phrase "deaf and dumb" came about. I never realized that the word dumb could mean, or used to mean, the inability to speak. That explains a lot. Thanks again, kudos.

4:21 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

I am always happiest when people say what I write has helped them in some way. Thanks.

6:55 PM

 
Blogger michael said...

Interesting blog this> there are many intellegent dumb or mute people. See this article at http://www.deaforblinddating.com/index.php?page=articles

8:45 AM

 

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