Monday, 1 October 2012

A stupid debate.

Another little debate over US English/UK English usages this week.

 I've noticed a few times the boys' little friends telling them off (rather sanctimoniously, I thought) for using the word 'stupid'. "That's a bad word, you mustn't say it," they say.

Now maybe it's just me, but I do use the word "stupid" and think it's fine. "That was a stupid thing to do," I'll fume at one of the boys, if they do something well, stupid, and hurt themselves. I'll say "Stupid woman" in the car, if someone cuts me up (if I don't say something worse). It's a useful word.

I was at a party the other night with some American girlfriends, and this came up. I said I couldn't understand what was wrong with the word stupid. One friend said she would never say it in front of her kids, although she happily admitted saying other swear words in front of them. "It's like saying retarded," she said. But surely, I persisted, "retarded" is much worse, as it actually implies mental disability (and so is doubly un-PC, as it's insulting disabled people too.) I certainly don't use that word, or any of the related words that were popular among kids in the 80s (you know the ones I mean....)..

I asked my friend what word she would use instead of "stupid" when telling off her kids. "I would tell them that is not OK," she replied. Somehow, I don't feel this would have the same force.

Anyway, I looked up stupid and it comes from the Latin verb "stupere", to be numb or to astonish, so it's not an equivalent word to "idiotic" or "dumb" which actually originated from medical conditions. I can't see why it's a bad word. In fact, I'll argue that it's a perfectly good word - perhaps insulting, but it has a definite meaning - much more so than "not OK" which could mean all sorts of things.

Anyone else like to weigh in? Is stupid a word you use, or has it now become politically incorrect? Or am I just being stupid about this?

21 comments:

About Last Weekend said...

The expression "It's not OK" was one of the things that drove me crazy when I first came to CA, its so passive aggressive undefined and so hard to know what it means. .

The Reluctant Launderer said...

I struggle with this one. Not that I think "stupid" is a bad word - just that my nearly-4 yr old boy uses it with such venom, generally against his 2 yr old sister, that we've decided to ban it completely. Easier said than done - esp when it's such a useful, everyday word. Now everytime I say it (many many times a day) he pipes up: you said the BAD WORD... Give us a few weeks and he'll have found some other way to torment his sister and we'll be trying to reinstate "stupid". I did notice in the US over the summer tho that lots of parents banned various words we'd never consider: Hate, ugly, mean. Apparently these are all "strong" words, and as such not suitable for little mouths. Better however than the "b*llox" my 2 yr old came out with yday...

jane said...

I'm an American with a few British friends and I cringe whenever they tell their children they've done something stupid. It just sounds mean to my ears. Saying it's 'not ok' is kind of a weak option, though.

conuly said...

Your kids' friends really say "mustn't"? We would've said "can't" or "shouldn't". Or, more likely, "Oooooh, what he saaaaaaid!" in a singsong voice.

But yeah, this whole rule against hate/stupid being "bad words" is actually fairly recent. I mean, rules against calling PEOPLE stupid aren't new, but banning the whole word entirely? I don't remember that from my childhood, but it's common enough here. (Of course, in my childhood it was okay to report that somebody used a racial slur by using that word, and now children call those "the n-word" and such.)

I've read somewhere that American English is fast switching its taboo vocabulary from profane and scatological phrases into derogatory phrases for other people, which pretty much sums up why people who curse in front of their kids stop them from saying things like stupid.

Melissa said...

Oh God I use stupid fairly regularly. Like when my children do something stupid, like swing a baseball bat near the crystal glasses when they've already been warned not to

Expat mum said...

Yes, I learnt this a long time ago when I used it in front of a group of small kids. You would have thought I'd said 'fuck' and half of the mothers apparently chose not to mix with me any more.
And what i find hilarious is that Americans use the word "spaz" all the time. Either they don't know what it is short for, or they don't think calling someone spastic is outright wrong.
OK, your word verif letters are so squashed up, they don't even make a pretend word. This is going to take some time...

MsCaroline said...

Oh, thank GOD I am past those days! Reading this reminds me of an incident that took place when Son#2 was about 7 or 8 years old and was playing in our yard with a group of neighborhood children - and it STILL rankles (he's 15 now.) I don't remember exactly what took place in the group, but as I recall, Son#2 used the word 'stupid' to refer to the actions of one of the little boys who was consistently cheating at the game they were playing, and he promptly went home and told his mother, who then marched herself up the street into OUR yard and admonished Son#2 for using inappropriate language (interestingly, she did not bother to speak to me about it - just chewed out Son#2 and marched back home - coward.) I have no problem with other adults setting my child straight when the situation warrants it - in fact, I appreciate it - but you can only imagine my reaction when Son#2 informed us at dinner time that he'd been chided - in our own backyard - for using 'the s-word' by Little Ricky's Mom. As I was about to take him to task myself for using such language, he piped up and said, 'but Mom, I thought 'shit' was the s-word, not 'stupid'! MrL and I rolled our eyes and told him to refrain from using the 's-word'(which wasn't the real s-word, at least in our book) around Little Ricky, but that it wasn't really a bad word unless you used it to describe someone's mentality, and that, yes, in the situation he described (cheating) the behavior was stupid, since it was ruining the game for everyone else. (MrL was so incensed that he was in favor of marching down to Little Ricky's house and explaining in loud and clear language to his parents just exactly which words were verboten at our house, and - in more loud clear language - just what we thought of Mrs. Little Ricky's ridiculous behavior, but I eventually talked him out of it in the interest of neighborhood harmony.) I do agree with Reluctant Launderer, though: 'stupid' can be used as a pretty mean taunt at other kids, and I think that's where the taboo probably came from. That being said, I use 'stupid' all the time to describe items or situations. I just don't use it 'at' other people. (PS: and just to show you what small-minded people we are, MrL and I take great pleasure in the fact that - after years of Little Ricky's Mama fighting every one of his battles - and many more imagined ones - for him (most of them instigated by him), he's turned out to be exactly like you would expect.)

Muddling Along said...

Stupid is not a bad word - stupid is running out in the road after being told not to, stupid is tipping your food on the floor and then slipping in it and banging your head. All of those things are far more than 'not ok'

Silly is for things that aren't quite stupid

And all of this is surrounded by telling children they are clever and funny too - just some things they do are downright stupid (climbing up on a trunki to see something and then surprise surprise falling off like they did the other eleventy twelve times???)

Nota Bene said...

I'm in the stupid camp.









Oh.

jen said...

I don't like the word 'stupid' (I am a Brit in the UK), but I do use it in context. "that was a stupid thing to do" is fine. "You are being stupid" is not. Actions can be stupid, not the person. I have banned it in our house as I have a very bright son who used it when his littler (also smart) sister couldn't do something. I know the child he learned this from a child in his class who is particularly unpleasant in his use of the word. I also really object to the over use of cretin, which is a medical term and deeply offencive.

Perhaps 'that is not well thought through' or 'that is not acceptable' or ....I don't know!

Iota said...

I noticed exactly the same thing. 'Stupid' is not a very serious accusation in British English. I might say "I went out for a walk, but it was a stupid idea, because it was obviously about to rain". But yes, in American English it's offensive. I must have insulted a lot of people, especially children. "Don't be stupid" is something I might often have said.

What about 'silly', though? I think that has much more serious connotations in British English than American English - the reverse of 'stupid'. In American English, particularly with regards to children, I think it means something like 'daft'. People would say "you're being so silly" to a child, if he was clowning around. In fact, I think clowns are often described as silly. So it means funny, in a trivial sort of way. In Britain, I wouldn't call a child silly unless I was implying that they shouldn't have done something. "That was a bit silly, wasn't it?" doesn't mean I'm laughing with them; it means I'm criticising them.

Can you please stop writing about things that are on my "to be included in my book" list? (This post, the one about having mommy/mummy spelling corrected, losing friends...) Stop it.

Kit said...

I agree with the comments above that feel it's OK to use stupid to describe an action, rather than calling someone stupid.
I think we've all got more sensitive about labeling kids in any way, certainly more so than when I was a child, and words like stupid and thick have got more sensitive.
But it seems like it's far more offensive over there than here in South Africa, where the British English usage is more common.

nappy valley girl said...

ALW - I know, I don't like it either. It is kind of passive aggressive.

TRL - The trouble is, sometimes we need strong words. Sometimes we need to tell a child they're behaving in a way that's "horrid" rather than "not nice". Having said that, I would probably not stupid in the sense that my child (or someone else's child) was not bright. Just that what they were doing was stupid, rather than they themselves.

Jane - I don't really see why it is mean. Lots of kids say "dumb", and that is just as bad. I think it has just come to be seen as mean.

Conuly - you're right, they probably say "can't". And I think you're right, it's quite OK for a small child to say "Oh My God" but not "I hate you".

Melissa - thank you. That is exactly the situation I would use it in....

Expat Mum - That means I must have offended people too. Whoops!

Ms Caroline - your story fills me with horror. I would be furious if an adult berated my child for saying "stupid". Of course it can be mean, but children are mean sometimes, and you have to judge when to come down on them over it.

Muddling Along - yet more good examples. And yes, I do use silly more often. Stupid is when they have done something really quite bad. But I will call myself stupid for something small, like not being able to locate car keys...

NB - I'm there with you.

Jen - I agree about "cretin" but somehow feel stupid is less insulting. I think the tone of voice is more important really. If a child is telling his brother/sister he's stupid in a mean way, then yes, I think that's bad. But equally I would if they called him "poo-poo head" or something like that.

Iota - apologies about the book! Isn't it funny how we all experience the same things - and I'm probably two years behind you...

nappy valley girl said...

Kit - Agreed. But I think "thick" is a lot worse. That definitely implies you are not clever, whereas stupid seems to me more of an "in the moment" word.

Circles in the Sand said...

Bit late with my comment, but, wow, I had no idea! Cant remember how many times I used the word stupid during my time in the States- probably loads! Isn't the word 'cow' also a horrible insult in the US? As a Brit, 'stupid cow' doesn't sound terribly bad to me if someone's cut me up on the road, but I guess to an American it must be very offensive.

PantsWithNames said...

I use stupid (and silly) all the time. Generally when it really was a pretty stupid thing to do. Examples a plenty but walking up to a door and headbutting it to see what happened is the one springing to mind at this precise moment...

Tanya (Bump2Basics) said...

It's interesting to read the etymology of stupid, I always likened Iit to thick and thus shy away from using it in relation to people. The big taboo on stupid in the US is news to me, a definite shift from what I knew. I hear what you are saying but expect you will have trouble fighting the cultural tide even if it seems over the top.

'Cross the Pond said...

I think it's fine. They are your kids and if you want to say 'stupid' go ahead. Anyone who tells you different is the stupid one. And anyone who tells you they haven't said something equivalent in front of their children is a liar!

MsCaroline said...

Please don't think I'm a stalker - just checking in on you. I'm sure I'm not the only one of your readers who has been thinking of you during Hurricane Sandy.

Hope all is well in Nappy Valley. The images we've been seeing are beyond devastating.

nappy valley girl said...

Thanks for all your concern. We survived the storm and have only just got power back. More soon.

MsCaroline said...

I just read Iota's post and am glad to hear that you're all OK, but I can only imagine what the last days have been like, in the post-hurricane aftermath without power and with the 2 LBs.
Thinking of you all and hoping things return to normal as soon as possible.
Caroline x