Semantic change and the description of disability : A diachronic corpus study of lame, crippled, handicapped, and disabled

University essay from Linnéuniversitetet/Institutionen för språk (SPR)

Abstract: With data from the Corpus of Historical American English, this study charts the semantic development of lame, crippled, handicapped, and disabled from the 1900s to the 2010s. Using both qualitative concordance line examination and frequency data, it attempts to determine what types of change have occurred in American English (as represented by COHA) within each adjective. Further, the study isolates each adjective’s ‘human disability’ reference usage from its total frequency to determine a history of how people with disability have been described in the data period. The study finds that the trends of the adjectives’ ‘disability’ reference sense quite cleanly follows a euphemism treadmill (Pinker, 2007: 320): lame’s descent cooccurs with crippled’s ascent, which is also true for crippled and handicapped, and handicapped and disabled, with some overlap. Notable form-centric developments are the emergence of an abstract sense of lame through a metaphorical application of the ‘disability’ sense; the steady frequency of a metaphorical application of crippled to describe ‘damage’ in an inanimate noun referent; the rise of handicapped’s metonymical handicapped parking, against its general trend; and disabled’s semantically narrowed emergence as the most frequent lexical item after the US civil rights movement.

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