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What Makes the Special Olympics "Special"?

On July 25, the fourteenth Summer Special Olympics World Games will open in Los Angeles. Over the next seven days, 7,000 athletes will compete in sporting events at venues around the city, supported by 30,000 volunteers and cheered by 500,000 spectators. ESPN will broadcast the opening ceremony.

It sounds festive. It sounds inspiring. But what makes it "special"?

The "special" in "Special Olympics" is ... well, it's a special usage of a word that's held a special place in the English language for eight centuries. Yes, the games of the Special Olympics make everyone involved feel extraordinary, distinct, and regarded with affection—all venerable definitions of special. But special is also a shorthand reference to the participating athletes: "people with intellectual disabilities," according to the official wording. It's the same special we see in special-needs children (children with particular requirements resulting from disability, especially related to learning) and special education (classes for children with physical or mental handicaps).

If that sounds like a politically correct 21st-century circumlocution—something akin to special housing unit to mean "solitary confinement," which euphemism maven Mark Peters wrote about recently—well, think again. In fact, special has meant "having physical or mental deficits" for at least 125 years, and special needs has been around just as long. "We must feel that for these special children, much as we have done already, we have not yet done enough," wrote the author of an 1874 article about "pauper children" who were "dull, stupid, and incapable of the common duties of life"—yes, they said things like that on the record back then—published in the London-based Cornhill Magazine. A 1915 article about disabled children, published in the (American) Journal of Political Economy, referred to "the utmost care" taken "to provide [the children] with educational advantages adapted to their special needs." A 1936 book, Preventing Crime, cited "activities and subjects suitable to special children" with "physical, mental, and pedagogical handicaps."

By the time Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of President John F. Kennedy, founded the Special Olympics in 1968, the association of "special" with "mentally challenged" was firmly established. If anything, it was the word "Olympics" that was controversial: the U.S. Olympic Committee holds a tight grip on the word, but in 1971 it granted official approval—a special dispensation, you might say—to the Special Olympics.

Special Olympics, special needs, and special education are just a few examples of the exceptional flexibility of special. Since it first crossed the English Channel from France in the 13th century, special has taken on multiple meanings—particular, remarkable, dear—and become part of dozens of idioms and expressions, from special relativity in physics to special magistrate, special pleading, and special prosecutor in law; from special effects in TV and movies (earliest usage: 1909) to special teams in US football. Its literal meaning, from Latin specialis, is "individual" or "particular," as opposed to "general." (Compare the related words species and genus.) But its extended meanings range far and wide.

Special sometimes connotes "rare" or "expensive": historically, you paid a surcharge for special-delivery mail (earliest usage: 1885) to arrive on, say, a Sunday; a special edition of a newspaper or magazine is often intended to be saved for posterity; a special order of merchandise costs extra.

U.S. special-delivery stamps circa 1922–1944.

Conversely, special may mean "cheap" or "readily available." An item is "on special" if its price is reduced; a Saturday night special is an inexpensive, low-caliber handgun; a blue-plate special was, in the mid-20th century, a cheap meal "with all the fixings" served at a diner or café on a single plate (of any color). (All three of those idioms are originally American; "on special" dates back to 1909 or earlier.)

And sometimes special is more akin to "curious," "peculiar," or even "secret." The special relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain is easy for politicians to cite but hard to define; the special interests of U.S. politics are famously hard to pin down. (Are women a "special-interest group"?) Special operations (in use since World War I) are covert and unconventional, and are carried out by mystery-shrouded special forces.

Special has a long history in commerce and branding, too. The first dictionary citation for special train, often simply called a "special" and signifying a seasonal route or luxury service, is dated 1851, and it didn't take long for rail lines to begin incorporating special into their naming systems. The Florida Special began service in 1888; the Orange Blossom Special that lent its name to the famous song (written in 1938) was a luxury train that traveled from New York City to Miami—winter months only—between 1925 and 1953. Before the end of the golden age of train travel, many other routes had special attached to their names.

"Television special"an addition to a regular broadcast schedule—first appeared in print in a 1955 issue of Billboard magazine, which noted that the comic musician Victor Borge "will be paid $100,000 for each of two 60-minute specials." The term took on new cultural meaning beginning in 1972, when the ABC network introduced its first "Afterschool Special," an anthology title for movies with social themes, aimed at children and teenagers, that aired in the late afternoon. The specials were broadcast "four to six times during the school year, pre-empting local programming" through the mid-1990s, according to a Wikipedia entry. Meanwhile, "after-school special" acquired multiple slang meanings, many with off-color overtones. (See Urban Dictionary for examples.)

The discount retailer Kmart introduced another special into the cultural lexicon. The BlueLight Special—first used in stores in 1965, trademarked as a phrase in 1981, and discontinued in 2014—was a surprise discount heralded with a revolving blue police light and the announcement "Attention, Kmart shoppers!" The savings lasted only as long as the light was on. In short order, "blue light special" became a synonym, used in films such as Beetlejuice and Rain Main, for any cheap item.

One of the most enduring special brands is Kellogg's Special K, which in its original manifestation was a vitamin-fortified breakfast cereal; the brand now comprises chips, crackers, beverages, and breakfast bars. (The brand's current slogan: "Eat Special. Feel Special.") Back in 1955, the parent company "had a desire to combine the valuable properties of other foods, like protein, with the grains in cereal," according to the brand's community website . The "K" in the name stands for Kellogg's. And the special? "This was a special new development in the world of cereal and was considered something 'Special' from the Kellogg company."

The Special K name was special enough—in the "distinctive" and "secret" senses—to appeal to users of street drugs, too. By the 1980s, "Special K" had become slang for the anesthetic and painkiller ketamine, used illegally as a recreational drug.

That's a shading of special that skews sinister and grimly ironic—suitable, perhaps, for the cautionary tales of the ABC Afterschool Specials. But it's very far indeed from the qualities represented by the valiant—and indeed special—athletes of the Special Olympics.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Wednesday July 15th 2015, 2:21 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Nancy, this was very ... special. haha.

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