“Smart” and “Stupid”: Two Problematic Words We Could Do Without

How frequently do we stop to consider our choice of words in everyday conversations? During my recent experience in leading a first-year orientation group, I’ve been making a more conscious effort to reflect on the colloquial language I naturally turn to. Orientation leaders are, after all, some of the first people new students meet and spend time with when they arrive at their respective schools. While these students are being initiated into college life and campus culture, they’re looking at the leaders among them to determine where they’re supposed to go, what behaviors they’re expected to exhibit, and, generally, what is or is not accepted within their peer groups. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors must hold themselves responsible for the diction they use and the examples they set, because these are the people that new students are going to imitate during their first few months on-campus.

With this concept in mind, words like “smart” and “stupid” have been catching my attention with particular discomfort – and I wholeheartedly believe our society would benefit from eliminating these words from our vocabulary, altogether.

We equip language of this sort more often than we consciously recognize it, and we have been doing so since the beginning. Dating back to the 1300s in late Old English, “smart,” with reference to an individual’s intelligence, has categorized someone of a “quick, active, [and] clever,” mind (a). Though it originally described something sharp or painful, such as a person’s wit or even a physical attack, since then we have aligned the word “smart” with a predominantly-positive connotation, and typically an innate trait. In doing so, this suggests that some people are born with intelligence, and, therefore, hold a higher advantage at success than those who are not. It creates and reinforces a hit-and-miss, either/or scenario, where intellect is not something gained and strengthened over time, but instead something one either has, or lacks.

For example, many individuals might recall from their elementary and high school days the moments when they received a higher-than-average grade on an exam, or answered a particularly-difficult question correctly during a class review game. In response, they sometimes earned one of the following comments:

A) “They always get the right answers.
They’re smart.”

B) “I wish I was smart.
Maybe I wouldn’t struggle so much with this subject.”

“Smart” conveys the idea that an individual will either be successful because of a trait they were born with, or unsuccessful because of a trait they lack. It encourages us to overlook the circumstances surrounding someone who appears “smart,” and eliminates personal responsibility for our own successes and failures by giving us a scapegoat to fall back on. If people trained themselves to lean on words other than “smart,” these misunderstandings could be avoided. Take quote A, for example: When students recognize a classmate who regularly appears to understand the material, they begin to assume that said student understands everything in the class, and that their comprehension comes easily to them. Next, quote B: scoring well on a given exam does not undermine the degree of stress, confusion, and general difficulty the individual experienced while preparing for it. Furthermore, struggling with the course material does not mean you’re going to fail; it only means you’re going to have to work harder than those to understood it right away. If one receives a poor grade because they didn’t study or ask for help, then they cannot blame their grade on the idea that they’re not “smart” enough.

On the other hand, the word “smart” is also degrading for those students unable to study as frequently as others, and without the time and resources necessary to obtain the help many are fortunate enough to have. Admittedly, I never could have graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA, without the math and science tutors my parents connected me with and helped me pay for. Additionally, if my familial and living situation had required me to work a part-time job during my post-school hours, I would not have had the free time and energy necessary to study as often as I did. The bottom line is, “smart” individuals never succeed in the long-term because they are “smart”: their accomplishments are the product of opportunities, hard work, determination, and a desire to learn. Perhaps some people possess stronger aptitude for certain subjects, or recall information more easily than others. But judgement, reasoning, and comprehension are strengthened only with time and experience.

Whereas people in today’s society frequently associate “smart” individuals with success, modern language also subliminally encourages individuals from a young age that people supposedly fail in correlation with another word, stupidity. In a brief web search, the word “stupid” appears to mean “unintelligent,” “uninterested,” “careless,” and “senseless” (b). One of the earliest definitions derives from Middle French in the 1540s, meaning “mentally slow, lacking ordinary activity of mind, dull, inane” (c). Returning to the common habit of equating disability and difficulty with stupidity, regardless of the point someone is trying to make, relying on the word “stupid” draws hasty conclusions about someone else, fosters a negative and unwelcoming environment, and, again, encourages the idea that success and failure belong to innate traits, rather than a personal journey which takes time and is unique for everyone. Again, we should never assume a person’s circumstances based on superficial appearances. Classmates struggling with the course material may not have the opportunity to work with a tutor, and a child who doesn’t perform as well in a sport as their teammates may not be interested in it. As was illustrated with the word “smart,” eliminating the word “stupid” encourages us to reframe the way we think and speak. If you catch yourself saying it outloud or thinking it, even if you’re jokingly using it to describe yourself, I encourage you to consider what exactly it is you’re trying to say, and to integrate a different word in its place.

Rather than relying on such language to determine what is, or isn’t, successful, we need to take responsibility for our own accomplishments and mistakes. With regard to student life, faculty often preach that every experience gives you the effort you put into it. Sometimes our setbacks are roadblocks we cannot prepare for, but the way we respond to them involves a conscious decision. We can choose to ask for help when we need it, or to change the path we’re following when it bring us to unexpected locations –  but no one else can make that decision for us, and only we know ourselves well enough to determine what has to change. Furthermore, by modifying our vocabulary to avoid judgmental habits, habits we may not be consciously aware of, I believe we can foster, in our professional and personal lives, an environment of open-mindedness, courage, acceptance, and self-love. “Smart” and “stupid” are vague, inadequate, and unnecessary words – and it’s about time we left them behind us.



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