The Disability History Glossary, or The History of Disability Words.
Updated: Jul 7
EVEN MORE OF A CONTENT WARNING THAN ABOVE.
This post is made up of historical terms for disability of which many are considered extremely offensive. It's basically a list of them.
I've been meaning to do a post like this for a while, as a bit of an explainer on the terms I often come across in my research, as well as their origins.
Most of these words are ones we don't use anymore, either because they're old fashioned or because they're now really impressively offensive.
Whether you are interested in disability history and need a glossary of search terms, or are curious about the background behind a lot of words we still use for disability, you should find the answer here, and might be surprised by some of them.
NB: I absolutely do not advocate the use of words for people that they themselves find offensive just because there's a historical basis, because I'm not a prick.
There are a lot of things that we did in the past that we don't do now, see THE ENTIRE REST OF THIS BLOG jesus.
Meaning: A lack of adequate power, strength or physical or mental ability. Implies a loss of ability rather than an ability that they just never had, which would be an inability. The preferred term for most in the community currently. Not seen all that much in historical documents, considering that it's one of very few of these words that has always meant the same thing which is incredibly annoying.
Background: Earliest known use, 1570s. From the 1640s refers to being incapable in the eyes of the law, as a witness, victim or accused, which is much more narrow a definition than was used before and currently.
Meaning: A mental or physical disability, or more specifically, to be placed at a disadvantage in a contest. (It's only come to mean disability in the last 100 or so years)
Background: There's a myth that the background of this word is from beggars going around, cap in hand, but it isn't. It came from a game called hand in cap, (which existed before this but with a different name) where two people who were betting on horses would find a neutral person to determine the odds of an unequal game. It soon shifted to other actions to make races fair, where things such as extra weight were added to racers who were at too much of an advantage.
Put simply, a handicap was a disadvantage that made success more difficult, which I really feel deeply in my soul.
Definition: Specifically someone who is unable to use one or more of their limbs, but soon became a synonym for all kinds of disability. Used regularly and freely from pre-950AD to mid 20th Century, but has been reclaimed by some disability civil rights movements in the 80s to the present.
Background: From the Old English for someone who creeps, halts or limps due to complete or partial loss of the use of one or more limbs. Related to the old Germanic term for a crook or bend. Multiple spellings for cripple exist, from crypel and kryppill to cropel which will come up in historical texts but are usually obvious when sounded out.
Definition: Someone affected by spasms, first used in 1753. Specifically referring to someone who has a form of spastic paralysis was later, 1896 up until the 1960s when it became an offensive slang term for someone awkward, incompetent, clumsy or stupid. In current medical use to refer to a change in muscle tone due to spasticity.
Background: The spas- root comes from the Greek for drawing, pulling, stretching. Spastic became used to describe cerebral palsy quite specifically for a long time and was just the correct descriptive word, hence The Spastic Society (now Scope). If you see a reference to "spastics" pre 1945, it will usually be referring to Cerebral Palsy, or sometimes a similar spasmodic contraction related to a later brain injury.
Definition: Not strong, infirm from sickness disease or injury. Sometimes also used to refer to someone confined to the home or bed due to said disease or injury, but more generally a disabled/ sickly person. Also used for removing someone from active duty due to injury or illness. Not the opposite of valid. A source of contention amongst the disabled community at present, because realistically it does look a lot like the opposite of valid, and many non-disabled people use the term without recognising the significance in the difference.
Background: While spelt the same, invalid (inVAlid) and invalid (INvalid) are different. (inVAlid meaning "of no legal force", now used for not provable/correct) Both come from the latin invalidus, but the two definitions in English were established around the same time. Invalide however existed in French before both of these to describe someone infirm and not strong (hence the difference in pronunciation which English borrowed from the French word)
Meaning: Weak limbed, crippled, broken.
Background: It's pretty much always meant the same, from Old English. It's often referring to limbs specifically, much like cripple. The use of lame figuratively to mean imperfect is surprisingly old though, unlike many other figurative uses of disability-related words, from the late 14th century. So kids calling everything lame are actually being historical. Maybe if you tell them that they'll stop.
Definition: Feeble, frail, not strong or firm or weak in body or health, particularly due to age. "Of decreased vitality" which is my favourite definition. Used for anyone with any form of longer term illness.
Background: From the late 14th century, from infirmus meaning not strong and stable.
*Daisy has a flashback to the UK 2017 General Election and screams for 10 minutes*
Typically used for older people, unlike...
Definition: A disabled person with some form of weakness. Lacking strength or vigour (physical, moral or intellectual). Typically used for younger people, children and people with learning disabilities (feeble-minded) but seen to reference physical conditions too.
Background: From the Latin flebilis, meaning lamentable or more literally, "that is to be wept over" which is so extra I love it.
Disease, sickness, illness, ailment, malady
Technically mean different things but you can't rely on that when you read them, because people by their nature mix around and play with words a lot, hence the entire point for this bloody post in the first place. Sickness is an ailment but illness isn't always a sickness and they're all diseases but a disease isn't necessarily a malady. Got it?
Disease: In the early 14th Century it meant discomfort, inconvenience, distress. By the late 14th century it meant specifically a health problem (sorry I'm running out of words to describe them).
Sickness: Used to be the same as illness, by the late 19th Century it became more restricted to just nausea
Illness: Something that makes your body or mind work not as well as it should. Doesn't need to be specific.
Ailment: Physical disease or illness, particularly if it's relatively minor and chronic.
Malady: (13th Century) A chronic physical disorder or disease. (14th century onwards) Extended to include moral or mental disorders as well..
Meaning: Having a flaw, imperfect, faulty. Frequently used in the early 20th Century by eugenicists to describe babies born with significant impairments. Also used from mid 1800s to mid 1900s to describe people who were mentally ill.
Background: Earliest proof of the word is in the mid 14th century, generally meaning a lack of an essential quality. Only much more recently applied to people.
Definition: Someone with Down's Syndrome. Also sometimes shortened to "mongol" or "mong".
Background: It was incorrectly thought that people with Down's Syndrome had shared genetic and racial traits with people from Mongolia. Not used very frequently, but comes up sometimes. Use of shortened "mong" is extremely offensive and much more recent, but is also a term in Australia for a cross-breed dog so if you're reading Australian news they probably mean that.
Definition: "To make slow, to delay the development of" or "slowed, delayed, hindered". More recently an extremely offensive term for someone with learning disabilities or cognitive impairment.
Background: A verb in the 15thC, "to make slow", used as a noun from 1788 to mean a delay of progress. Offensive slang from the 1970s, originally in American English which then spread. Prior to this, it was a purely descriptive word of an effect on something. Usually used when referring to "mental retardation".
Definition: Someone with a learning disability
Background: Mencap, when first formed, was called the National Association of Parents of Backward Children
Categories for those with learning disabilities/cognitive impairment
Idiot: The highest bracket. Someone with a profound learning disability
Imbecile: The middle bracket. Someone with a severe learning disability
Moron: The lowest bracket. Someone with a moderate learning disability.
Background: In the 19th Century a classification system was introduced to describe the differences in those with learning disabilities. These terms existed for some time before they were officially introduced in the classification system but can't be relied on pre-19thC. Someone with a mild learning disability wasn't known by this system, unless they had something visible such as Down's Syndrome. They would be more likely classified as dull or dim witted, which was sometimes used for people who weren't very clever, but also for peasants and the working classes.
Definition: Someone with a mental illness, but periods of lucidity. Specifically, periodic insanity dependent on the changes of the moon. Later became used legally for someone of unsound mind in general.
Background: Came from the idea of moon sickness. Used often to describe someone who legally is not capable or responsible for their actions. Patients would typically be eccentric or reckless. There are a few pieces of legislation that deal with the difference between lunatics (those with mental illness) and idiots (those with a learning disability.) The Lunacy Act 1845 didn't make the distinction, then the 1886 Idiots Act did, then the 1890 Lunacy Act didn't again. Different to:
Meaning: Someone with a mental illness. Showing madness, mentally unhealthy.
Background: Form the 1550s to refer to people. A constant mental sickness, this will be seen frequently regarding institutionalised patients.
Meaning: Affected by hysteria, a nervous disease of women, thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. Irrational, uncontrollably emotional, (much later) extremely funny.
Background: This covered a lot of different things for women. Anything "out of the ordinary" could well be characterised as hysteria (and was). By the 19th century it was being categorised as a psychological disease of somatic origin where their mental state affected their physical health (which many equate to "making it up" but of course isn't as simple as that) but now is not a recognised illness at all.
Meaning: Mute, silent, by choice or inability. Frequently used to refer to Deaf people who didn't verbalise (eg deaf and dumb) and come up when people are unable to speak in a census.
Background: There's a forked root for this term, as it meant both being speechless in general, and unable to respond through a lack of intellect. It began to be used as a descriptor of stupid people in the 18th century, but the meaning shifted a lot. In reference to disability history, the context will be clear.
Meaning: Silent, not speaking. By choice or incapability, similar to dumb, however mute often used for cases non-speaking who weren't considered to have an issue comprehending, just speaking itself. Still used to reference deaf, but also those with mental illness.
Background: In the 14th Century, it just meant silent, with no assumption as to the reason why, and so it would be used for certain orders of monks/nuns. By the mid 15th Century it was being used to mean that someone was incapable of speaking for whatever reason.
Meaning: Someone with a visual impairment. But also a number of different ones: lacking in sight, lacking mental perception, confused. Seen with so many different spellings, like many of these when you sound them out it will be clear. A source of contention in the disability world when "blind" used as a term for lacking foresight.
Background: This one is unusual. The original meaning of the word was "confused" from the 16th century; meaning "not controlled by reason" was later from the early 17th century. Around this time it was also used to mean "closed at one end". As for the verb, it's even older. 13th century, but it still means "to deprive of sight, or deceive."
The term blind to refer to someone with a visual impairment is later than all of these, 1640ish. A meaning we use frequently now, which is "acting without any investigation" starts in about 1840.
Of course the problem with using history to justify a use for a word which makes many people uncomfortable is that not everyone knows the history. If the assumption of someone else is that it is related to the disability, then no amount of Old English or Proto-Germanic will have suddenly jumped into their heads to put them straight.
Meaning: A very small person, or a tiny insect, or pet name version of "Margaret." (Nope, me neither). Used to refer to someone much smaller than average, frequently in circuses and freak shows. In modern times, a common but unpleasant term for anyone short, but particularly those with dwarfism.
Background: The insect term comes from midge, its use to mean a small person is only seen from 1854. Typical use would refer to someone who was extremely small but had standard physical proportions, so not necessarily associated with forms of dwarfism.
Meaning: "Having lost or suffered impairment to the qualities proper to the race or kind." Someone with a physical, mental or learning disability where breeding with them would cause a deterioration in the race and in society. Also applied to poor and "idle" people.
Background: From the latin meaning "to be inferior to one's ancestors". Made popular in the 20th century thanks to eugenics, but existing as a term from the 15th century.
Meaning: A non-disabled person. Petition to make this how we refer to them from now on. Termed by laws which differentiated which beggars would be considered sturdy beggars who were able to work and which were the infirm poor (disabled and sick beggars).
Background: Weirdly, originally meant "hard to manage", "reckless" and "violent". The current meaning of sturdy that we know (solid, strong) was from the late 14th century, just before its use in the Statute of Cambridge 1388 and the Vagabonds and Beggars Act of 1494.