Stigma and “disabled” words

Today we have a special guest blogger. Jothy Rosenberg is one of my favorite people on the planet. A few years ago, I edited his memoir, Who Says I Can’t, which is about his surviving and thriving after cancer caused his leg to be amputated. Jothy has since become a campaigner for people with disabilities and is now working on a documentary, called Who Says Roseann Can’t Run, which will show the journey of a woman, whose leg had to be amputated after the Boston bombing, as she learns to run again with her prosthetic leg.

Jothy has started a Kickstarter funding project for the film. Please consider supporting this film by donating here:

Take it away, Jothy.

I am guest posting here on Erin’s blog about grammar. Erin is about much more than grammar; grammar is just a hobby for her. She is all about telling a great story. That is why I keep wanting Erin to edit things I write. But she is right, grammar is a means to that end. In between grammar—the mechanical aspects of language and writing—and great storytelling is deeper, sometimes hidden, meaning in the words we use to tell a story.

I have been an amputee for forty years, and a lot has changed in how we express my “situation” in those many years. Back in the day, as they like to say now, here in this country, and unfortunately still today in many countries, having a difference about you physically or mentally meant being ostracized and shunned. Way, way back in early human civilization, this made some sense either because it meant you could not help the tribe obtain food and defend itself, or because it meant you had a genetic defect that should not be passed on to future generations. But we are supposed to be more evolved than either of these reasons now, so even forty years ago, it should have not been so difficult for a sixteen year old who’d lost his leg to get through a day of high school.

For many years, in spite of either being on crutches or walking on a pretty primitive prosthetic leg, I refused to get a handicapped car placard because I did not want to be associated with that word. I also would have nothing to do with “support groups” of others who had lost a limb because I did not want to be associated with “those people.” I wanted to be “normal.” Of course, that’s ludicrous. There is no normal and certainly not for someone who goes from having two legs to suddenly having one; a new normal slowly emerges that that person gets to—no, has to—shape.

I also had a lot of trouble with the word “disabled.” Think about that word. The prefix “dis-” means “not” or “negation” so “dis-abled” means “not abled.” That is pretty harsh. And if you knew me as the double-black-diamond skier, swimmer from Alcatraz, and century bike rider all with one leg and one lung, you would be hard-pressed to say I was “not abled.” I am not alone. Would you say Oscar Pistorius (murder allegations aside), who got admitted into the “able-bodied” Olympics, was not abled? We do know better now. And to strike back, in my view misguidedly, many who have a physical change to their bodies rebel vehemently against this word and instead make up new words like “differently-abled,” as if they are able to bend spoons like they are someone out of X-Men. I admit, it took me about twenty-five years to finally relax about all of this and stop caring about these semantics, so I understand those who are fresh and whose sensibilities are still quite raw do not want labels. But it’s important not to become like PETA either: no matter how great your cause, if you become too militant about anything, you alienate the rest of the world and lose the chance to further your cause.

I now have the pleasure of working with Roseann Sdoia, an amputee who became so when the second bomb at the Boston Marathon went off right next to her and so badly damaged her right leg that she had to have it amputated above the knee. She also got shrapnel damage to her left leg (which is still working okay) and both her eardrums were blown out. She was saved by a Boston fire fighter, who got her quickly into an ambulance and held her hand all the way to the hospital. It’s cool, and kind of cute, that they are now a very devoted couple. When someone recently called out when Roseann was going down the sidewalk, “Clear a path. A handicapped person is coming through,” her boyfriend, not even missing a beat, said, “She’s not handicapped, she’s hand-capable.” Because this is all very fresh with Roseann, and her self-esteem has taken as huge a beating as her body, this statement by her boyfriend was not just helpful, it was essential. She needs to hear that, and the rest of us need to be sensitive to her need to hear that. Perhaps in twenty-five years she, too, will relax about these semantics, but in the meantime, sensitivity should be something we can all learn in the words we use. After all, you two-leggers, we one-leggers just have to stick together.

If you would like to support a new documentary being filmed about Roseann’s journey from barely surviving last April’s horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon to running again, please consider supporting our Kickstarter campaign at:

What decimate really means

If you are reading this from your underground doomsday bunker, I thank you for taking the time from your end-of-the-world preparations to read my humble blog. Yes, today is the day some people decided the ancient Mayans predicted would be the end of the world. So, in the spirit of all things apocalyptic, I thought we should talk about epic disasters—more specifically, the word decimate.

What do you think when you hear the word decimate? Bridge-swallowing earthquakes? Nuclear wastelands? Robot overlords?

Decimate has come to mean near-total destruction, but that’s not the technical definition of the word. Decimate comes from the Latin word decem, which means ten. Thus, decimate means to reduce something by a tenth. Merriam-Webster lists the first definition of decimate as: “to select by lot and kill every tenth man of.”

Destroying a tenth of something is still some serious carnage, but I doubt it matches the type of destruction most people now identify with the word. However, that’s okay. The meaning has changed over time, where it now can mean anything from a storm knocking down every tenth tree to robot overlords exterminating all of humankind.

And just in case this is my last post, I’ll leave you with this—an introduction to your new leaders. Good luck in the apocalypse, suckers.

180? 360? Where are we again?

Sometimes people use the terms 180 degrees and 360 degrees to explain situations in a person’s life. This comes from the idea of a circle, which has 360 degrees. However, it is a common error to use 360 degrees when one means 180 degrees.

If you want to explain that a situation is opposite from what it was, use 180 degrees because this indicates a half circle (or think of it as a half turn, where you are standing in the opposite direction as you were from the start).

Example: Steve really cleaned up his act. Now he never misses class and he does all his homework. He’s really gone 180 degrees.

If you want to explain that a situation is back to its original state, use 360 degrees. Think again of the circle. If one goes 360 degrees, one makes an entire circle, or turn, and is back in the original position.

Example: Steve is back to his old ways. He skips class and doesn’t turn in his homework. He’s really gone 360 degrees.

Fill in either 180 or 360 in the blanks below. The answers are at the bottom.

1. Martha has made a _______-degree turn in her life. She has lost 400 pounds, has stopped eating junk food, and exercises daily.
2. Zelda didn’t learn from her mistakes. She has gone _______ degrees.
3. Martin made a _______. He’s back to huffing glue and listening to that darn rock and roll music.
4. Chloe has stopped beating up her little sister and setting the house on fire. Now she even helps old ladies cross the street. She has really gone _______ degrees.

1) 180 2) 360 3) 360 4) 180

Erin Servais is a freelance copywriter and copy editor at Dot and Dash LLC. She writes articles and email blasts; she edits books and websites. To learn how to hire her for your next project, go to:

trooper vs. trouper

What a trooper!

Does this phrase look correct to you? It’s okay if it does because using trooper instead of the correct word is a very common mix-up.

In the phrase above, you should use trouper instead of trooper.

A trouper is a person who is a member of a troupe (a group of performers, such as actors). A trooper is a soldier (a member of a group of troops), a police officer (such as a state trooper), or a person in a similar category of jobs.

We use trouper in the phrase above and similar phrases (such as he is such a trouper) when we refer to a person who has overcome obstacles. The popular phrase the show must go on comes from the idea that even if bad things happen (a piece of the set breaks or an actor has a sore throat), the troupe must continue with the show—lest they be pelted with tomatoes coming from angry audience members.

When you refer to someone as a trouper, you are giving him or her a compliment and saying in short that even though the s/he has had bad things happen, s/he has continued on and worked to overcome the obstacles. The show must go on.

A student who has a bad cold and still shows up to take the big test is a trouper.

A runner who stubs his toe in the middle of a marathon and keeps running is a trouper.

A dancer who falls in the middle of her big solo and continues on with the routine is a trouper.

A person who is fighting a serious illness is a trouper.

Blame it on the French
One reason for the trooper and trouper confusion is because both words come from the same root word, troupe. The Middle French language gave us the word troupe, which then meant a band of people. In the 1540s, English got troop (and thus trooper) from this word, adapting it to mean a body of soldiers. Then, in the 1820s, we began using troupe in English to mean a group of performers, a member of which is a trouper.

*I got this etymology information from a website I absolutely love, called Online Etymology Dictionary. If you ever are interested in learning the history of a word, I encourage you to visit this site for a thorough and easy-to-understand explanation.

Erin Servais will be a tireless trouper to help you reach your book publishing goals. Learn how to hire her at:

Gifting: a rant

Just so we’re clear, this post is a rant.

I understand that verbing nouns is not going to go away. But one in particular is stuck in my craw.

I finished editing a book yesterday—not a bad book. I don’t want to say anything negative about the book itself—just a word I kept seeing in it.

And that word is gifted.

As in: Ellen gifted the book to her son.

What’s wrong with plain old gave? Gave worked fine. We’ve been using it since English was Old English; though, of course, it was spelled differently back then.

But this is about more than me just being a curmudgeon. There is something about gifted that just sounds snooty. Take a look at these two sentences:

Robert gave his beaten-up, broken-necked guitar to James.
Robert gifted his beaten-up, broken-necked guitar to James.

When you use gifted it sounds like you’re doing some thing more special than just giving something to someone. Like you deserve a medal or a certificate of generosity.

Giving isn’t about being the recipient of praise for doing a kind act. But gifting feels like it is—like the focus is on the giver on and not the recipient.

What do you think?