Why Gimpy Law? Part I: Politically Correct Disability Language

I don’t mean to offend people with “Gimpy Law,” although I imagine that some people may be offended. I do understand the politics and potential for self-empowerment with words. As a person with a disability myself, it is jarring to hear politically incorrect language used as if they were politically correct; it feels like nails on a chalkboard. As a former English major who wrote whole papers on a single word, I also understand the power of words and the value of etymologies. Etymology is the study of words, their origins, and the historical development of their meanings; not to be confused with entomology—the study of insects. Yes, I can be nerdy.

Let’s dissect the word, “handicap.” The Oxford English Dictionary (hereinafter “OED”) defines “handicap” as (1) “A circumstance that makes progress or success difficult” and (2) “A condition that markedly restricts a person’s ability to function physically, mentally, or socially,” which it notes as being out dated and offensive. (See OED  “handicap”). In one of the disability studies classes I took in undergrad, it was speculated that “handicap” derived from people with disabilities panhandling and putting a hand in a cap to do so, which is a negative connotation for people with disabilities.

I looked up the etymology online (because of course everything online is credible) and according to www.etymonline.com, “handicap” derived from a 1650’s game where two bettors would put their hands into a hat or cap with money and the neutral umpire announced the odds and the bettors would withdraw their hands (full hands meant they accepted and the bet was on, empty hands meant they did not accept the bet and forfeited the money). (See etymology of handicap). What a strange game! But a connection between this game and panhandling (with a hand in one’s cap to beg for money) might exist, although I am not sure how tenuous the connection is. Another etymological link is a 1754 reference to “horse racing…(Handy-Cap Match), where the umpire decreed the superior horse should carry extra weight as a ‘handicap;’ [leading to a] sense of ‘encumbrance, disability’ first recorded 1890. The [modern concept of a person with a] ‘disability’ [developed last in] early 20c.” (Id.).

To demonstrate politically correct language and that I know what I am talking about (although I don’t claim to know everything), here are flyers I created for an event promoting disability awareness and inclusion:

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I realize that “gimp” and “gimpy” should be included in the list of politically incorrect words. However, I have personal affection for the word “gimp,” as that is what my college friends with disabilities and I referred to each other as. Warning long tangent/illustration: After a few of us and our personal care assistants, who were also students, watched Pumpkin (2002), a movie starring Christina Ricci, playing a sorority girl romantically involved with a boy with physical and intellectual disabilities, who miraculously becomes “normal” after they have sex, for a disability studies class, we were all pissed. Roger Ebert’s thumbs up review of Pumpkin, in which he commands its brilliance in expanding our perceptions and for its use of “wicked blade…satire in order to show up the complacent political correctness of other movies…[refusing] to play it safe…” also upset us. I wonder if Ebert would have written a different review after he acquired head and neck cancer, becoming an ally to the disability community. We were all so pissed that I spearheaded a short documentary as our group project for the disability studies class. It documented the daily life of students with disabilities, including interviews with students and a professor. The documentary was called “A Day in the Life: A Gimpy Story.” However, realizing that our professor would find the word, “gimpy,” problematic, we left off the tagline. I see words like “gimp” analogous to the N word for the African American community; it’s ok for marginalized community members who have been oppressed by the word to use the word as a source of empowerment by reclaiming it, but it is not ok for people outside of that community to use it.

So why Gimpy Law, you ask? Perhaps all the politically correct disability domain/blog names were taken. Perhaps I have a sense of humor when it comes to my disability. Perhaps I am doing what the movie, Pumpkin, failed to do; refusing to play it safe/by the book in today’s complacently politically correct world. It’s probably a combination of all of the above. I invite you to join me in my journey, starting a disability law practice, which I will share in this blog. Feel free to post your feedback, hate mail, etc. below in the comment section. I also encourage you to take the below poll on the offensivity of Gimpy Law.

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4 thoughts on “Why Gimpy Law? Part I: Politically Correct Disability Language

  1. I completely agree about the use of the word “gimp.” Those of us in the “in” group have a responsibility to monitor around whom we use such empowered language. People who are misinformed, or who deliberately take the language out of context with malicious intent are dangerous. I try to educate as many people as I can about the origin and the reason for my “off-beat” language choices, just like you do. Great post.

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