The Grammarphobia Blog

Is our writing lame?

Q: I’m surprised that you use the word “lame” in Origins of the Specious to mean bad. I taught a student with cerebral palsy and this use of “lame” seems insensitive to me. But perhaps it has nothing to do with actually being disabled.

A: You raise an interesting question. Is the use of “lame” in a figurative sense (as in “a lame argument” or “a lame excuse”) insensitive or politically incorrect?

We certainly didn’t intend to be insensitive when we used the word in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. (We called a false etymology of the name Fiat “pretty lame”).

But we’re glad you brought this up, since it gives us a chance to examine the word more closely.

The word “lame,” which is extremely old, was written as lama or loma when it was first recorded in Old English in the year 725.

As for its ancestry, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that there were corresponding words in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High and Middle High German, and Old Norse. And there’s a connection with Old Church Slavonic, in which lomiti meant to break.

When “lame” first came into English, the OED says, it meant “disabled or impaired in any way; weak, infirm; paralysed; unable to move.”

This meaning is now considered obsolete, but a similar sense developed around the year 1000.

The OED defines this later meaning as “disabled through injury to, or defect in, a limb; spec. disabled in the foot or leg, so as to walk haltingly or be unable to walk.”

The word was first used this way by the Benedictine abbot and scholar Aelfric in his Lives of Saints, and this is what the word still means today in its literal sense.

But a figurative usage emerged in the 1300s. The OED defines this figurative sense as meaning “imperfect or defective, unsatisfactory as wanting a part or parts. Said esp. of an argument, excuse, account, narrative, or the like.”

Chaucer was the first to use the word in an other-than-literal way. In his short poem A.B.C. (circa 1366), he used the phrase “in soule to be lame” (that is, to be lame in one’s soul).

Chaucer later wrote, in his long poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374): “Disblameth my yf ony word be lame. For as myn auctor seyde so sey I.”

(A modern version: “I pray you meekly not to blame me if any word might be lame, for just as my author said, I say the same.”)

The word has been used in this figurative way ever since. Here are a few of the examples cited in the OED.

“O most lame and impotent conclusion,” from Shakespeare’s Othello (before 1616).

“I will not contend much with him about the Proposition, which is lame to the ground,” from John  Canne’s A Necessitie of Separation From the Church of England (1634).

“Tables, or other Repertories … are oftentimes short, and give a lame account of the Subject sought for,” from Sir Matthew Hale’s Preface to H. Rolle’s Abridgment (1668).

“Our Argument … will be very lame and precarious,” from Richard Bentley’s A Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris (1699).

“The Theory of Comets, which at present is very lame and defective,” from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726).

“Her account was so lame and imperfect, that Mrs. Mourtray lost all patience,” from Elizabeth Hervey’s novel  The Mourtray Family (1800).

“His grammatical construction is often lame and imperfect,” from William Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets (1818).

You’ve heard the expression “lame duck” used to mean an officer-holder who’s been defeated in an election or can’t serve another  term. This American expression dates from the early 20th century.

For example, the OED cites an article that ran in the New York Evening Post in December 1910.

“Lame Duck Alley,” according to the article, was a name reporters gave to “a screened-off corridor in the White House offices, where statesmen who went down in the recent electoral combat may meet.”

But “lame duck” had been used earlier, in 18th-century England, to refer to someone defaulting on a debt. And a still earlier use of “lame” to mean “behind time” originated in Britain in the mid-1600s. For example, news or tidings that arrived “by the lame post” was late or outdated.

All these figurative meanings led to another, one that’s become ubiquitous in modern slang.

In this newest sense, the OED says, someone who’s “lame”  is “inept, naive, easily fooled; spec. unskilled in the fashionable behaviour of a particular group, socially inept.”

This usage was first recorded in 1942, according to the OED, which labels it “slang” and says it originated in the US.

One OED citation quotes the linguist William Labov, who wrote in his book Language in the Inner City (1972): “To be lame means to be outside of the central group and its culture.”

Another quotes an article from a London newspaper, the Sun: “This DJ is lame.”

To sum up, it would appear that in modern times, figurative uses of “lame” to mean (more or less) ineffectual or out of it are so common as to be routine.

Meanwhile, use of the word in its literal sense—that is, having difficulty in walking—seems to have declined. People who are literally lame don’t often describe themselves as such, and many resent the term.

At least this is the impression we’ve gotten after visiting several websites for people with disabilities.

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