Deaf-mute is a term which was used historically to identify a person who was either deaf using a sign language or both deaf and could not speak. The term continues to be used to refer to deaf people, mainly within a historical context, to indicate deaf people who cannot speak an oral language, or have some degree of speaking ability, but choose not to speak because of the negative or unwanted attention atypical voices sometimes attract. Such people communicate using sign language. Some consider it to be a derogatory term if used outside its historical context; the preferred term today is simply "deaf".
Additionally, it is sometimes used to refer to other hearing people in jest, to chide, or to invoke an image of someone who refuses to employ common sense or who is unreliable. "Deaf and dumb", "semi-deaf" and "semi-mute" are other historic references to deaf people. Of these latter examples, only "deaf and dumb" prevails as a reference.
In the past deaf-mute was regarded as a socially acceptable term, usually to describe deaf people who use sign language, but in modern times, the term is frequently viewed as derogatory, insensitive, insulting, inaccurate or socially and politically incorrect. From antiquity (as noted in the Code of Hammurabi) until recent times, the terms "deaf-mute" and "deaf and dumb" were even considered analogous to "stupid" by some hearing people.
In Europe and Western society, most deaf people are taught to speak with varying outcomes of ability or degrees of fluency. The simple identity of "deaf" has been embraced by the community of signing deaf people since the foundations of public deaf education in the 18th century and remains the preferred term of reference or identity for many years. Within the deaf community there are some who prefer the term "Deaf" to "deaf" as a description of their status and identity.
Classification as a deaf-mute has a particular importance in Jewish law. Because historically it was impossible to teach or communicate with them, deaf-mutes were not moral agents, and therefore were unable to own real estate, act as witnesses, or be punished for any crime. However, today when techniques for educating deaf people are known, they are no longer classed as such. The law was never about deafness per se, but rather about the inability to educate such a person.
Deaf-muteness in art and literature
Stephen King's novel, The Stand, features a main character named Nick Andros who is referred to as "deaf-mute." Though deaf people almost always have a voice, King interpreted the term literally and made Nick unable to vocalize. However, he could read lips and make himself clearly understood by pantomiming and in writing.
The phrase is used in The Catcher in the Rye to indicate someone who does not speak his mind, and hears nothing, in effect becoming isolated from the world.
Chief Bromden, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is believed by all to be deaf and mute, but in fact he can hear and speak; he does not let anyone know this because, as he grew up, he was not spoken to (making him "deaf") and ignored (making him "mute").
The character Singer in the novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, written in 1940, is referred to as "deaf-mute" multiple times.
In the classic Zorro stories, television series, etc. Zorro's aid Bernardo, a mute, pretends that he can also not hear, in order to get information to aid his master in his fight for justice.
In the early 87th Precinct novels written by Ed McBain, Teddy Carella, the wife of Detective Steve Carella, was referred to as a "deaf-mute," but in later books, McBain stopped using the term. In the foreword to a reprinted edition of "The Con Man", originally published in 1957, McBain says "A reader pointed out to me two or three years ago that this expression was now considered derogatory. Out the window it went, and Teddy is now speech-and-hearing impaired."
- Mindess, Anna (2006). Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. ISBN 978-1-931930-26-0
- Moore, Matthew S. & Levitan, Linda (2003). For Hearing People Only, Answers to Some of the Most Commonly Asked Questions About the Deaf Community, its Culture, and the "Deaf Reality", Rochester, New York: Deaf Life Press, ISBN 0-9634016-3-7
- Barquist, Barbara; Barquist, David (1987). "The Early Years". In Haley, Leroy. The Summit of Oconomowoc: 150 Years of Summit Town. Summit History Group. p. 47.
- What is Wrong with the Use of these Terms: "Deaf-mute", "Deaf and dumb", or "Hearing-impaired"?
- Nancy Creighton. What is Wrong With the Use of The Terms: 'Deaf-mute', 'Deaf and dumb', or 'Hearingimpaired'?. National Association of the Deaf
- Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture. In Search of Deafhood. Toronto: Multilingual Matters.