When did the word “Dummy” become derogatory?

Our marketing intern, Maryann Yin, explores the origins of the word “Dummy”:

When we first read Silent Star, William “Dummy” Hoy’s nickname perplexed many Lee & Low staff members. We found it strange that the celebrated baseball player embraced the nickname “Dummy.” Shouldn’t he feel hurt by it?Silent Star

I went on a fact-finding mission to work out this mystery by turning to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Here are three different definitions for “dummy”:

1.     A person who is incapable of speaking.

2.     A person who is habitually silent.

3.     A stupid person.

In the 21st century, it has become common practice to use “dummy” with insulting intentions. It’s not surprising that some people may feel confused about why William encouraged people to call him “Dummy.” In this passage from Silent Star, author Bill Wise offers an explanation:

“Today calling a deaf person dumb would be derogatory and offensive, but in Hoy’s day it was acceptable. Hoy carried his nickname with pride. Dummy became the name he preferred, and he often corrected people who called him William.”

William was born in 1862. By then, some version of the word “dumb” had existed within the English language for hundreds of years and meant, “silent, unable to speak.” As English became influenced by German, the definition of “stupid” was also adopted; this occurred in the 1800’s.

Today, synonyms for “dummy” include “airhead,” “dimwit” and “idiot.” Under conventional circumstances, those words don’t promote positive feelings for anyone within society, much less those who are deaf. As a result, the deaf community no longer uses the word “dummy.” They have also acquired a much more negative view towards the terms “deaf-mute” and “deaf and dumb,” especially since most people who are deaf can learn how to speak.

With this mystery solved, let’s embark on a new mission to embrace each other by remembering to choose our words carefully.