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The rise and fall of minusválido

The word minusválido, which in modern Spanish is considered a pejorative (insulting) word for a disabled person, was a new word in Spanish when it first appeared, but it was created from two Latin elements: minus ‘less’ and validus ‘strong, well in health’. We have so far been unable to trace its exact origin. In the CORDE corpus its first appearance is dated 1974, in a report in the newspaper ABC on new regulations for state subsidies to large families; the official government publication, the Boletín Oficial del Estado, had already used the term in such legislation (BOE 150, 24 June 1971, p.10305). Indeed, it was used as early as 1968 (BOE 288, 30 November 1968, p. 17126) in the VII Plan de Inversiones del Fondo Nacional de Protección al Trabajo, when funds were allocated for the employment of disabled people apparently for the first time. The word is recorded in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DRAE) for the first time in 1984, along with the related words minusvalía, minusvalidez, and minusvalorar. The term was most probably coined to avoid incapacitado ‘incapacitated’, implying inability to do anything, subnormal ‘subnormal’, implying difference from the majority, and more direct terms such as cojo ‘lame’, ciego ‘blind’, etc. Figures from the CORPESXXI corpus show that it is still in quite wide use, though its frequency has declined slightly over the first 15 years of this century:

Period Frequency per million words
2001 - 2005 1.46
2006 - 2010 0.35
2011 - 2015 0.86

Frequency of minusválido in CORPESXXI Spanish sources, 2001-2015

Interestingly, minusválido seems to be a uniquely Spanish creation: it is not paralleled in other Romance languages.

The etymology of minusválido has, however, told against its use, since it can be construed as meaning ‘of less value’ rather than ‘of less strength / health’, as a result of which it has developed what linguists call a TABOO value. The term discapacitado is now officially preferred: this appeared in the 1992 edition of the DRAE, where it is described as a CALQUE (coining of a new word which echoes the structure of a foreign word) from English disabled.  Like minusválido, discapacitado is built up of Latin elements (the negative prefix dis-, the noun capacitas, -atem ‘ability’ and a verbal ending -are), there was no parallel word in Latin itself.) It does not appear in the CORDE corpus which covers Spanish up to the year 1985; in the CREA corpus its first attestation in Spain is 1988. The official substitution of minusválido by discapacitado (and, further, discapacitados by personas con discapacidad) is quite clearly the result of international pressure from the World Health Organization and the United Nations,[1] following which a 2006 Spanish law provided that, as from 1 January 2007:

Las referencias que en los textos normativos se efectúan a «minusválidos» y a «personas con minusvalía», se entenderán realizadas a «personas con discapacidad». (BOE 299, 15 December 2006, p. 44154)

While it remains to be seen whether minusválido will be completely ousted from all areas of Spanish, it can be seen from the CORPESXXI corpus that in Spain discapacitado has for some time had a significantly higher frequency than minusválido:

Period Frequency per million words
2001 - 2005 3.96
2006 - 2010 1.81
2011 - 2015 2.70
CORPESXXI Frequency of discapacitado in Spanish sources, 2001-2015

[1] See the article by Javier Badía and the following discussion (accessed 11 September 2014) 

What can we learn from the history of minusválido?

  • It is an invented word: although it is based on Latin stems, no such word existed in Latin.
  • Its use spread from official documentation into ordinary usage (CHANGE FROM ABOVE).
  • It was probably motivated by a concern not to refer directly to particular disabilities, or to use existing words which were considered insulting.
  • The attempt to replace it is due to similar considerations; the reason for its avoidance is that it has become a TABOO word.
  • It may have a relatively brief existence in Spanish.