I’ve heard it used by colleagues and middle-schoolers, characters in middle-level fiction and family members; I’ve even heard it from the pulpit, being used by an otherwise progressive minister. It’s the adjective lame, and we need to disable it.
Can we take a minute to think about what the word lame really means? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that lame means to be “disabled or impaired in any way; weak, infirm; paralyzed; unable to move.” This dictionary tells us that the word lame also applies especially to being “disabled in the foot or leg, so as to walk haltingly or be unable to walk.” But that doesn’t cover the whole meaning, as anyone with a physical disability knows. My elderly neighbors might be described as “lame,” according to the traditional definition (though it’s not a current medical term and isn’t—and shouldn’t be—commonly used to describe people with disabilities in this day and age). They walk slowly and “haltingly” with walkers. They don’t go out much because it’s too painful to move very far. Their physical world is bounded and confined by reduced mobility.
The girl in my daughter’s class who uses a wheel chair (and occasionally crutches) would also be considered "lame" by the old definition. Getting things out of her locker is a challenge and sometimes, when she needs to go from one floor to another, she must do so alone in the elevator, while the other kids take the stairs. Her disabilities are not insurmountable problems, but they are certainly challenges, both physically and emotionally. I’m betting almost everyone reading this has an acquaintance or loved one who meets the traditional definition of lame. Do we really, then, want to be using this word as a synonym for stupid?
People who would never, ever use the word retarded to mean stupid seem to find the word lame an acceptable substitute, as in, “That movie was so lame; don’t waste your money on it!” The Urban Dictionary, an online lexicon of new usage and slang, defines lame in this way: “Just plain stupid, unoriginal, or lifeless.” And it gives these examples of things that are lame: “barbed wire tattoos, butterflies, and tribal tattoos.” Butterflies? Really? There’s a definite sense of arrogance in this usage—a sense of contempt for anything (or anyone) that doesn’t meet the standards of the speaker. Tellingly, “words related to ‘lame,’” according to the Urban Dictionary, include “gay, boring, loser, dumb, retarded, uncool, weak, annoying, idiot, fag, bitch, shit, [and] wack.” We all know how dehumanizing most of the words on this list are, and most of us would speak out vehemently if we heard them used and misused. We would tell the speaker that gay people are not stupid, women and girls are not bitches and people with cognitive challenges are not retarded. Could we not also speak up for people with physical challenges? Obviously, they are not “just plain stupid, unoriginal or lifeless” either.
Many of you might be thinking, right now, that the literal usage of lame is not very common today, so what’s the big deal? You would be partially correct. Most of us don’t use the word lame when describing people with physical challenges, and that’s actually a good thing. Using any adjective that focuses on a person’s challenges highlights those challenges instead of that individual’s complete, complex and multi-faceted personhood. And yet it’s a word that all of us will encounter occasionally, whether in reading nineteenth-century authors like Charles Dickens (think of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol) or listening to scriptures during a religious service (“Jesus … said to them, ‘Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk …’”). Given that we all know the literal meaning of this word, do we really want to be using it to describe something we think is stupid or unoriginal?
It’s time for us and our students to walk—and roll—away from the word lame. In the same way we’ve diminished the pejorative usage of gay and are “spreading the word to end the word” retarded, let’s end the contemporary usage of lame. It’s not about being “politically correct.” It’s about respecting people in all their diversity.
Wendorff is a professor of English, Ethnic Studies, and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.