Self-Defined

A modern dictionary about us.
We define our words, but they don't define us.

Avoid—Medical appropriation

tone-deaf

Speech

adjective

We would recommend adding a content warning when speaking about this term. Pleaseread the guidance on how and when to warn people before using this term in any context.

amusia, a neurological disorder that can be congenital (from birth) or acquired (due to comorbidity or injury) that results in the inability to differentiate speech, loss of ability to sing or produce pitch, or other disassociations with music (like rhythm); colloquially, when something is insensitive or poorly thought through.

Appropriate Usage

Referring the medical condition (amusia) as described above

Inappropriate Usage

As a literary metaphor for insensitive or negligent

Issues

Connoting negligence with a medical disorder implies that actions we can control (bad choices) are the same as actions that cannot necessarily be controlled (deafness). It reinforces the discriminatory idea that disability is bad.

Impact

Using the word tone-deaf reinforces the idea that Deaf and/or non-speaking/non-verbal people are somehow less than and that disability is bad (see Ableism).

By using ableist language, we are perpetuating violence against people who experience mental or psychological disabilities. Using this language perpetuates those systems and language of harm, regardless of our intent.

Usage Tip

Be mindful if you're referring to the medical condition or using it as a literary metaphor. If the latter, substitute by being more specific. Typically we can find an alternate definition by taking time to reflect on what emotion we're really feeling.

Alt Words

  • badly drawn
  • in poor taste
  • insensitive
  • negligent
  • not thought through
  • unaware
  • poorly-conceived

Further Reading

You may want to add a content warning before discussing or showing imagery involving this topic, as it is a topic that can elicit unnecessary harm through inducing negative feelings, anxiety, or trauma.

Content warnings usually take the form of "Content warning: tone-deaf" or "CW: tone-deaf. We recommend the former when possible.

Content warnings should be given at the earliest possible opportunity. Examples of where you can do this are:

  • Articles under the byline, before content
  • Videos (with proper audio descriptions)
  • Photographs (with proper alt text)
  • Podcasts (before topic, in transcript)
  • Books (introductory page, summary)
  • Conference talks/webinars
  • Start of social media posts including this term
  • Social media posts with a link to content including this term

Browse

Previous words

Next words