Tuesday, May 17, 2011

That's so lame!

CELIA: Didst thou hear these verses?

ROSALIND: O, yes, I heard them all, and more too; for some of them had in them more feet than the verses would bear.

CELIA: That's no matter: the feet might bear the verses.

ROSALIND: Ay, but the feet were lame and could not bear themselves without the verse and therefore stood lamely in the verse. (unquote)

As You Like It, Act 3, scene 2 (William Shakespeare, circa 1600).

Usually, when I hear "lame" used as an insult these days (as in: "That TV show is so lame, I can't believe you watch it!"), I flinch inside, even though I sometimes catch myself thinking it.

I'm familiar with the arguments, and perhaps you are, too, that its original meaning is totally obsolete (except maybe when people are talking about horses or other animals), and that no one really thinks of mobility impaired humans when they hear the word, anymore. So no one should seriously consider it a derogatory slur, in the same way that the N word is used. Personally, I find that argument unconvincing. And back in December of 2010, a blogger who goes by the screen name "lauradhel" gathered an archive of modern usage that refutes that argument, here: "I don't even THINK about disability when I say or hear 'lame!' No one does!"

But even without such contemporary evidence, the word 'lame' is still heard regularly in common passages from the Bible, and, yes, in folklore. So that original meaning is a part of our cultural context. And, yes, it does reinforce the idea that anything (or anyone) described as 'lame' is unworthy of even a moment's consideration.

But 'lame' does not bother me as much in the passage I cited, above. In the context of poetry writing, "foot" and "feet" have a specific meaning, and therefore, this exchange works both as an extended pun and a personification. And, frankly, I'm a sucker for a good (or bad) pun.

A "foot" in a line of verse is the smallest unit of rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables, just as a "bit" is the smallest unit of ones and zeros in a line of computer code. The term comes to us from the ancient Greeks (yup, them again), since choral dancers would dance to the rhythm of spoken or sung line -- tapping with their toes on the short syllables, and stamping with their heels on the long syllables. English doesn't have such a clear delineation between "short" and "long," so for us, it's stressed and unstressed.

For example, if ancient choral dancers chanted this:

"'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house"

Their accompanying footwork would go like this:

Toe-toe-heel, toe-toe-heel, toe-toe-heel, toe-toe-heel

Or, to:

"Hi-ho! Hi-ho! It's off to work we go!"


Toe-heel, toe-heel, toe-heel, toe-heel, toe-heel.

So when Shakespeare (in the voice of Rosalind) remarks that: "...the feet were lame, and could not bear themselves without the verse," he is making double comparison.

The first is a comparison between the uneven rhythm of a poetic line and the uneven rhythm of a lame person's walk -- with heels and toes dragging and stumbling along. The second comparison is between a line of verse and a crutch -- which (I find) is a striking visual. A line of poetry is straight, crafted from ink, and stretches horizontally across a page; a crutch is straight, carved from wood, and supports a person's weight vertically.

So this use of "lame" acknowledges the fact that lame people exist, and that members of his audience would recognize how a lame person's walk differs from that of the able-bodied. Using "lame" to put down a TV show, or someone's fashion sense (or whatever) -- what does that even mean -- other than: "it's boring," or "I don't like it"?

Perhaps that's another reason the modern use of 'lame' as an insult grates on my nerves: it's lazy. If you can't be bothered to put any more thought into your criticism than that, perhaps you should remain quiet on the subject. As my mother oft said: "If you complain of being bored, maybe it's because you're boring."


  1. It's rather a more serious insult than people might think, because it suggests that the TV show doesn't have rhythm and doesn't dance. And it isn't even.

    And, yes, a foot that isn't in a poem, doesn't have support.

    With the horse: does the horse feel extra pain in the leg, or numbness?

    So there's a difference between poetry and verse: poetry can be uneven, and verse is usually even.

    (And then there's free verse which can have even and uneven lines: or even the sonnet).

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