“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” ~L.P. Hartley
There are times while researching your family’s history that you come across a document that makes you want to smack someone. The words on the page scream in your ears and chill your soul.
Deaf and dumb. Idiotic. Defective. Lunatic. The N word.
In today’s society, they are disgusting words. But that hasn’t always been the case.
It wasn’t just newspapers. Consider the heading on this document:That little gem is from a special schedule in the 1880 U.S. Federal census: “Supplemental Schedules of the Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes” (sometimes referred to as the Defective Schedule or the DDD Schedule.) Included on that schedule were people classified as Insane, Idiots, Deaf-Mutes, Blind, Inhabitants in Prison, Homeless Children, and Paupers and Indigents in Institutions.
About Those Words
I wrote about the 1880 DDD Schedule in a post titled “Do You Have a Defective Ancestor?” Recently on Twitter, @nickidewbear said:
This got me to thinking about that title and why I didn’t put “defective” in quotes, as she suggested in a later tweet.
Defective was the word that was used on the document. It was not a euphemism. It was how the Federal government classified those people. It was the government saying, “These people are defective, dependent, and/or delinquent.”
The Federal government in 1880. Not me today.
Why That Matters
Accuracy is paramount in our research. When we change language or put things in quotes to soften the brunt of disgusting-sounding words, we are not being accurate.
We need to record the words — as disgusting and offensive as we find them to be. They were the words used by the people creating the records. They are their words. It’s not up to us to change them.
A Bit of My Background
I come at this issue from two different sides. I am a historian.
I am also the mother of a profoundly Deaf son. He was born Deaf. He does not speak. He also has other challenges that he struggles with every single day of his life.
If he had been living in 1880, he would have been on the Defective schedule. The Federal government would have called him Defective. I’d like to believe that I, as his mother, would not have called him that or thought of him that way. I’d like to believe that in 1880, I would have thought of him as I do today: my son.
So when I record the words used by our ancestors, I do so with a heavy heart. But I also know that softening those documents for today’s sensibilities do not serve any purpose except to make us feel better.
We Cannot Judge Nor Excuse
We cannot judge people of 100 years ago for the words they used. We can examine them. We can study them. We can see what they mean in context. But we cannot judge them.
Nor can we excuse them. It is easy to rationalize away their word choices. “Oh, when they said ‘deaf and dumb,’ they meant ‘dumb’ in the sense of ‘mute’ or silent.” No, sometimes they really did mean “dumb” like we’d use that word today: Stupid. If you were Deaf — especially if you couldn’t speak — your intelligence was questioned.
What we can do is read the words of the time and try to put them in context, to try to understand without judging, without excusing.