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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years


physically challenged

(late 1980’s | bureaucratese? | “handicapped,” “disabled”)

Always understood to be a euphemism, and soon lampooned, this phrase never quite made its way. It was used in the Democratic Party platform in 1980 as a substitute for “handicapped,” becoming the latest in a line of euphemisms for “crippled” or “unable to move like most people.” “Handicapped,” current in bureaucratese by the 1920’s, had finally conquered by the 1970’s, with “disabled” (less euphemistic) being the primary alternative. “Physically challenged” and “differently abled” came along in the 1980’s, and for a while it looked like “physically challenged” might muster the votes to take over the top spot. But it hasn’t happened; “disabled” and “handicapped” remain more common in everyday speech. “Special needs” (adjective) has since tossed its hat into the ring but seems to be used by preference of children or students.

Perhaps the problem was that “physically challenged” lent itself so readily to parody, and we all had fun with it in the late eighties and early nineties. Everybody remembers “vertically challenged” (“short”), but there were others. “Temporally challenged” (always late). “Verbally challenged” (bad with words). “Follicly challenged” (bald). “Pigmentationally challenged” (albino). For a few years there, if you were caught in any sort of inferiority, you could grin ruefully and say, “I’m ___-challenged” and draw a laugh. The phrase got caught up in the political correctness backlash — when the traditionally privileged got mad because the government dared to help anyone else — and ridicule was a primary weapon. The most recent crop of euphemisms made the easiest targets, which left room for the old euphemisms to retain their supremacy.

I guess the idea was that “handicapped” made you sound too passive or too much like a victim, whereas “physically challenged” made it sound like you could overcome your obstacles with grit and determination. There may have been a submerged battle over who should pick names for minority or disadvantaged groups. For a while, there was a grumpy consensus that we should call such groups what they wished to be called, with the understanding that it might change over time. It seemed the least we could do. That worked fairly well for “gay” or “African-American,” maybe even “hearing-impaired,” but not everybody in a wheelchair wanted to be known as challenged, much less differently abled. And plenty of people, mostly PC-bashers, thought we should keep the good old euphemisms even if they had accreted some unpleasant connotations. And so “physically challenged” never quite lived up to its potential.


pick your battles

(late 1990’s | therapese? | “pick your spots,” “don’t blow this out of proportion,” “know when to quit,” “don’t sweat the small stuff”)

This phrase used to turn up predominantly in two kinds of books: childrearing advice and advice to minorities (including women) trying to get ahead in business. Your boss and your toddler have about equal power, or equal ability to insist on their own way, and it’s unwise to spend too much time resisting or arguing. The expression now is used more generally, but most of the hits yielded by Google Books in the eighties came from books for parents. “Choose your battles” is a common variant. The practice of following either phrase with “carefully” or “wisely” is still common, but not as much as in the good old days.

A number of reference web sites assert that “pick your battles” is an old proverb or dictum, but Google Books shows that the phrase barely existed before 1980. “Origin unknown” shadows it in all the on-line dictionaries. A few adventurous souls seek its source in military strategy (here’s an example ), but Sun-Tzu never seems to have said anything that translates as “pick your battles,” although some of his principles are obviously related. I can’t find any evidence that a general or strategist originated the expression. Several sites attribute it to Dale Carnegie, but I’m dubious. I haven’t seen a citation anywhere, and although it is used on a couple of sites run by the Dale Carnegie people, they never claim that he used (much less originated) the phrase. The web being the echo chamber that it is, one site could have screwed up the quotation and others just copied without checking. For the record, here is the complete quotation: “Any fool can criticize, complain, condemn, and most fools do. Picking your battles is impressive and fighting them fairly is essential.” BrainyQuote.com (reliability unknown) lists the first sentence but not the second. I find “picking your battles is impressive” a little cryptic and clumsy, not typical of Carnegie’s style, although the sentiments are plausible. I’d love to find a trail directly back to Carnegie; as influential as he was, he’d make a great origin point, but without better evidence, I don’t buy it. Likewise with the Washington Post review of a biography of Edward R. Murrow (December 2, 1988), in which the line “You have to choose your battles” is attributed to Murrow, but it isn’t clear when he delivered it.

The expression means simply “save your energy for important matters,” or, less often, “intervene only where you’ll be most effective.” Or, more simply, “there just isn’t enough time to do everything.” Sometimes the emphasis falls more on saving time and energy; sometimes more on fighting hard for what’s important to you. You let most of the crap go by and try to avoid wasting your strength, or using up your reservoir of goodwill.

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