Five Words I’m Trying Not to Use

When I realized the r-word had somehow crept back into my working vocabulary, I had to work hard to stop. Here are some others I've tried to move beyond.

For many years, the r-word was part of my working vocabulary. You know which one I mean, the one that refers to people with developmental or learning disabilities. I managed to stop saying it, and then a few years later, it somehow crept back — mostly in a self-deprecating way, referring to myself when I made a mistake.

I’m a pretty profane person, generally. Maybe it’s how the word “libtard” has become popular on the right, but I started to recoil at what was coming out of my mouth. There are other words that started to fit that category, too. In an ideal world, we’d pay attention to every word we uttered, but while we should admit that nobody is perfect and we should be charitable about minor slip-ups, let’s propose a rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t write it in an email or an article, you probably shouldn’t say it, either.


When people say, “That sucks,” it’s hard not to think they’re referring to fellatio — or specifically, denigrating people who perform oral sex. But the term has achieved such a level of cultural ubiquity that I don’t really perceive much underlying misogyny or homophobia. “Lame,” however, is a different case, because it was always an insulting term that later took on a new cast. When you were lame, you were useless, enfeebled, a parasite. Now it just means “uncool,” but that is itself uncool. We’re fortunate to live in an era when advancements in medical technology have rendered treatable injuries that would have previously left people using a cane for the rest of their lives. Still, it’s impossible not to glimpse a bit of fascism-creep in mocking the disabled.


As with “lame,” this one is pretty obvious in who it refers to, even if few people say it with malice. You’re parroting the sometimes-halting speech of people with a developmental disability, and you know it, so we should treat this like the r-word. (This will be the hardest one for most people to weed out, I suspect.)

Spirit Animal

I don’t know that this one is hugely offensive, and it’s certainly intended to be benign, but it’s difficult not to see it as appropriative. War bonnets at Outside Lands have become a thing of the past — a tentative conclusion, anyway — but throwing this term around isn’t altogether different than casually donning a feathered headdress from a tribe you might not even be able to name. “Power animal” makes a better substitute, as it’s no less sincere.

Garbage Person

There’s something disturbing about any term that suggests a pariah, especially given the internet’s power to destroy lives in seconds. Granted, it’s usually used in the context of someone being flagrantly awful, but it’s still a bad choice of words. The president uses metaphors of infestation to speak about migrants, and while “garbage person” is less crude — and refers to individuals as opposed to entire groups — anything that denigrates someone as subhuman should be extremely suspect when Neo-Nazism is on the rise. Lastly, it sounds like a de-gendered version of “garbageman.”

Drank the Kool-Aid

This is a bad one, no way around it. Forty years ago this month, charismatic San Francisco preacher Jim Jones’ People’s Temple was the site of a horrific mass murder-suicide whose legacy includes this ugly metaphor. It’s easy to think of Jonestown as a collective delusion, but cults are authoritarian by nature — and 287 of the 909 people who died in the jungle of Guyana were children. Children don’t voluntarily subscribe to the tenets of “apostolic socialism,” but they die of cyanide poisoning just as horribly as adults. Imagine that scene for a second: hundreds of bodies, writhing and foaming at the mouth, with people half out of their minds shouting and systematically force-feeding the venomous drink to the rest. It happened to be Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid, but still, the phrase caught on. And now we use it to refer to people who uncritically parrot their employers’ bullet points. Eesh. Let’s expunge this ghoulishly breezy phrase from the English language together.


Read more from SF Weekly’s Thanksgiving-Week ‘Unpopular Opinions’ issue:

Unpopular Opinions: All Hail Pigeons
These misunderstood, resilient creatures simply reflect humanity’s creation of poverty and waste — and disgust for them says a lot about us.

Pickles Are Disgusting
Shoving vegetables into jars filled with vinegar became unnecessary with the introduction of the refrigerator, yet the outdated practice remains prevalent today.

These Are the Cliches I Can’t Stand
It is a joy to be an editor. But as marketing-speak conquers journalism, I have an ever-growing spreadsheet that lists more than 100 tics and soul-crushing no-nos.

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