When I was told that our prompt for this week’s 52 blogs post was the word ‘special’ I had three soundbites pop into my head almost immediately. Two are tangentially related, but the third is nothing more than an entertaining memory. I’ll save that one for last.

Special is Different

Back in 2009, shortly after coming first in the Next President of the United States, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to be a guest on a chat show… and he did a pretty good job of demonstrating why presidents don’t go on chat shows with the fall-out from this offhand joke:

Obama: No, no. I have been practicing…I bowled a 129. It’s like … it was like Special Olympics, or something

As it turns out I’d actually misremembered the quote a bit and looking at it now it does seem a bit insulting: the clear implication being that special olympians aren’t as good at their sport as regular olympians. Either way, my initial (mis)understanding of the gaffe got me thinking about the use of the word special. It’s one of those occasions where a word in a certains contexts has developed a whole array of meanings, some of which are derogatory (think also of ‘gay’).

I’m fascinated by the way that language changes, how words evolve, get appropriated and misappropriated, develop meanings other than those that were originally intended. Special is one of those terms that you would assume emerged out of political correctness, but you have to wonder whether it’s used to make the ‘special’ people feel better or the ‘regular’ people feel less uncomfortable using words such as ‘disabled’. If we really wanted the ‘special’ people to feel better I expect we’d just call them ‘people’ – we wouldn’t have special olympians; we’d just have olympians – but instead we have this condescending terminology which equates to saying to someone: I’m going to call you special so you think that your difference makes you superior but in fact the word is just going to serve to highlight the same difference that we’re busily trying to brush under the carpet.

In consequence, we now have a culture where you can successfully insult someone by calling them ‘special’ (which is the crux of Obama’s gaffe: that ‘special’ is inferior).

Special is Fatal

Now, since this is my blog let’s go ahead and make things even more sinister.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of World War II history you’ll quite probably have the same upsetting connotation come to mind as I do. If you’re a history noob then all you need to know is that the Nazis used the term ‘special treatment’ because even those sick, murdering bastards realised that you can’t get away with having your business diary openly state: “Tuesday: murder another million jews, gypsies and homosexuals”.

While I don’t expect there’s any conscious link between the two uses of the term, it is interesting that the word ‘special’ is used in both cases as a mask: in one case to hide the use of murder, and in the other (I’m guessing here) to hide the use of a word such as disabled which could be seen as insulting, derogatory, prejudicial, offensive, disturbing or merely uncomfortable (of course, now the word ‘special’ can be seen as all of those things).

There’s also the use of special to signify other: you’re not the same as me, I fear you – you’re other – but I shall mask my distaste with a positive sounding term. … too cynical?

(Incidentally, I had assumed when I started writing this that the Special Olympics were inaugurated before the war, before the unfortunate misappropriation of the word. So it shocked me a bit to learn that they first one took place in 1968 – years after the Holocaust – but maybe the sinister connotations of the word special weren’t quite so widely considered at that time).

Special is The Same

The second sound bite comes from Babylon 5, a darned good sci-fi series from the 1990s that gives me plenty of brainfood even to this day.

To give you the briefest possible context you just need to know that the below quote involves three character archetypes: Delenn is the Wise Alien; John Sheridan is the Hero; Ivanova is the Voice of Reason. So… John has just been talking to Delenn and found her pretty impressive, then has the following exchange with Ivanova:

Sheridan: “Ever had a long talk with Ambassador Delenn, Commander?”
Ivanova: “Yes, from time to time. Why?”
Sheridan: “She and the universe seem to have a special relationship.”
Ivanova: “… Don’t we all?”
— Sheridan and Ivanova in “A Distant Star”

This was a pretty big eye opener for me. I was well used to science fiction giving us wise aliens and treating them as ‘special’ (both in the sense of being different and ‘other’, and in the sense of having some sort of wisdom or ability the rest of us might covet). Suddenly, with one almost offhand remark, all bets were off: we’re ALL special!

In the sense of the above quote we all have our own special relationship with the universe – such a simple truth, but one that most scriptwriters would avoid because they need their characters to stand apart from one another. In a more down to earth context we’re all special because we’re all unique and different; by the same logic no-one’s actually different because we’re all different. You’re only as special or different as the next person because that next person is just as unique as you are.

Sorry …

Special is Awesome

Let’s comfort ourselves with a reminder that in more innocent times, before you read this post, special could mean something awesome. That’s the message in the song I’m going to talk about, but it’s not the reason why I’m bringing it up.

Some years back I used to work in a UK record store called Our Price. One day a colleague of mine put on a Pretenders album and Brass In Pocket eventually came on (it’s probably one of the few Pretenders songs that I genuinely like, but that’s neither here nor there). My colleague’s humming along and we come to the chorus – the moment where Chrissie Hynde drawls “Ahhhm Spesh-aahhhl” – and out of nowhere my colleague puts on his best falsetto and joins in echoing “Speciaaaal!”

It got a laugh out of me at the time and whenever I hear Brass In Pocket I will always hear my old colleague singing it like a castrati (“Speciaaaal!”).

Check out the video below: the moment I’m talking about, if you don’t already know the song, is when the band members hold up the menus with – you guess it – ‘special’ written on the top.

Also, I never, ever found Chrissie Hynde remotely attractive, but this video …