MINDing Our Words


Arguably, over the last ten years or so, western society has placed increasingly hyper importance on communication, no doubt because of the influence and permeation of social media. Politically correct speech has further transformed into the Woke Movement, with Cancel Culture being a modus operandi of some of its adherents. Regardless of your opinion on the subject, at its very core, is the recognition that language (of the past and present) has been and is being used negatively and positively to impact marginalized communities. Navigating this new literary turn can be a daunting proposition for principled educators. It involves negotiating the limited nature of the English language and avoiding the pitfalls of relativism, presentism, and historicism; while wishing to uphold morality and seeking to fight injustice.

As I reflected on this emerging and volatile dynamic, a remembrance from my independent school days came to mind. During a Grade 3 Language Arts class, a spelling/vocabulary word of little note appeared on the dictation and usage list. The word was mental. It was defined as having to do with the mind—a mental activity was not a physical one, and chess was given as a real-life example. I would have thought this dictation exercise to be rather trivial, and, at best, a fleeting moment in the day’s affairs. As is often the case, what was deemed to be insignificant by an adult was not always so in the mind of a third-grade student who had other ideas. Quite innocently, one of my students raised his hand and stated, “Mr. V., there is a boy at my swimming class who’s mental.” Not to be outdone, another student chimed in and announced that, “There’s this man where I go shopping who is quite mental and yells things.”

Full stop. An important teachable moment had arrived. I immediately halted the dictation and explained that the boy at the swimming class was probably mentally challenged—meaning having an intellectual and developmental disability—and the man at the shopping center was, unfortunately, mentally ill.

A pause shrouded the room, but my explanation had switched on the levers of the eager young minds before me; I could tell because half of them looked into the air, and everyone’s eyes, including mine, were shifting back and forth. The pensive silence was broken by another student, who, having heard all the semantics, came to this conclusion: “Sir, I am not great in Math; I think I am mentally challenged.” Oh boy!

I often think that one of the reasons I enjoy teaching with some measure of success is derived from a Germanic cultural attribute of being clear in one’s tone and intent, and not couching language in ambiguous niceties. Naturally, one needs to weave in a measure of Canadian diplomacy and sensitivity, especially in an elementary school setting. However, the level of these ambiguous niceties has morphed into language that is perplexing and defeatist to whom it is supposedly helping or defining without insult. In our efforts to pursue a just society, has our manipulation of language watered down its descriptive intent? To borrow from a true observer of Western cultural discourse, comedian George Carlin (1937 – 2008) lamented the issue of mental illness regarding soldiers:

In the first World War, that condition was called ‘Shell Shock.’ Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables. Shell Shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. Then a whole generation went by, and the Second World War came along. The very same combat condition was called ‘Battle Fatigue.’ Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say, doesn’t seem to hurt as much. ‘Fatigue’ is a nicer word than ‘shock.’ Then we had the war in Korea in 1950. The very same combat condition was called ‘Operational Exhaustion.’ The humanity had been completely squeezed out of the phrase, it’s totally sterile now. Operational Exhaustion sounds like something that might happen to your car! Then, of course, came the war in Vietnam, the very same condition was called ‘Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.’ Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! The pain is completely buried under the jargon. ‘Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.’ I’ ll bet you if we’ d have still been calling it Shell Shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll bet you that. – George Carlin

Back to Grade 3. Innocence and curiosity demanded an answer. Unlike Carlin’s observation of “shell shock,” the language surrounding those whom we now refer to as “mentally challenged” has had a rather unfortunate and disingenuous past. Early 20th Century labels (moron, imbecile, and idiot) for those with an Intelligent Quotient (I.Q.) under 70 have devolved into modern insults. They were replaced with the term “mental retardation.” The American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities posits, “The term Intellectual Disability covers the same population of individuals who were diagnosed previously with Mental Retardation.” Depending on where one resides in the English-speaking world, the two terms—mentally challenged or intellectual disability—hold sway in polite language. The inherent difficulty, as seen in Grade 3, is that the term is ambiguous and can devolve into less than appropriate language. While “mental” doesn’t quite have the same sting as those early 20th Century designations, the short form of the 1970s identification of mental retardation (retard), surely does. The unfortunate paradox is that its replacement terms in polite language often fail to make the correct connection to this disability. So, what does a teacher do with this controversial issue in language? Address it. Depending on the maturity of the class or individual, the following can be done:

  1. Correct the student gently and inform them of the proper language. Don’t stop there.
  2. Make it clear that the words mental and retard have become insults.
  3. Relate to them that the use of those words goes far beyond that of an insult and hurts all persons with challenges and disabilities,their opportunities in life, and their devoted families.
  4. Relay personal experiences and connections to family, friends, and other individuals who have disabilities.
  5. Advise students to address people using their names, and dialogue with them.

During the same period, a voracious reader in the fifth grade approached me with a work by Mark Twain. While I did not have the time to review his copy and see if it contained the racial epitaphs we now view as extremely vulgar and highly offensive, the book appeared as if it was in its original language, written in Missouri, of the 19th Century. (The word in question will not be repeated here.) I did inform the student that the word in question, its etymology derived from the word “ignorant,” continues to have a severe impact on persons who might be affected by its utterance, which in fact, should be everyone! I predicated that, while the book was indeed tremendous literature, it was written in an era with many faults and failings. My then principal, who appeared at the impromptu meeting, fascinatingly and wisely suggested that, “There are words and phrases we may use in daily communication and written text today, that in one hundred years might be deemed highly offensive, yet we have no indication that in today’s world, that might be so.”

The example of a Grade 9 student from several years ago also comes to mind. She informed me that I would have to wear a device that was connected to her hearing aid. During the conversation, I asked her about being hearing impaired. I thought I was using the accepted language. She politely corrected me and said the proper and consistent term was “deaf.”

By elementary school, and likely before, children learn that words are powerful and can wound others. People have a personal responsibility in how they wield them, and as teachers, we have a responsibility to educate our
students about this responsibility. Education is knowledge, and its genuine and moral application is wisdom. Words shape the actions of others and us. They can elicit fear, prejudice, and anger or they can usher in change, empathy, understanding, and acceptance. Words can also heal.

While enrolled in my undergraduate program, I had the pleasure of giving tours at the Todmorden Mills Museum in the Don Valley. A disinterested high school class came through near the end of June. My colleague was to give them a tour. Integrated into this class was a young man with intellectual and developmental disabilities, accompanied by his father. I offered to take this student around as he was seemingly very interested in everything on display. My first interaction with him was to ask, “What is your name?” I spent two hours talking about artifacts and answering all his questions. At the end of the tour, the rest of the class was primed to leave. However, this young man introduced me to his father and said, “This has been the best day of my life.” He paused, looked at me and stated, “You should become a teacher.” Herein lays the link from the English lexicon to authentic real life. Were we to dismiss persons because of malicious or misunderstood words, we might, as author Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature) related, “miss out on the better angels of our nature.”


Manfred J. von Vulte
Manfred J. von Vulte B.A., B.ED., M.A., OCT, is the published author of numerous articles, as well as three children’s works, a history book, and an educational guide on the use of comic books and experiential learning for parents and teachers. He earned three degrees from York University. Manfred has been teaching for over twenty years, with the Durham Catholic District School Board since 2017. In 2019, he was recognized with the Distinguished Catholic Educator Award by his peers at St. Leo Catholic School. His latest published work, The Purple Lion and the Spotted Leopard: There’s a Muffin in My Boot – A Guide to Character for Primary and Middle School Students, illustrates the value of perseverance, integrity, honesty, resilience, humility, and other noble qualities that are so important to the school experience. Manfred has been a lower left leg amputee since 2019 and serves on the Disabilities Committee of the Durham Catholic District School Board.

This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2023 issue.


You may also like