João sem braço ("armless John") is a Brazilian or Portuguese idiom that is used as an epithet for an ignorant and lazy person.
As that in itself is hardly a positive attribute, it is relevant to understand the position of amputees in society, their individual and collective role, in order to see how this is a very ableist and thus derogatory way to formulate the attribute of ignorant or lazy.
The origin of saying that "someone is an armless John" seems to be a war time or post-war time era, when people that lost one or two arms were exempted from working or fighting. As that, it directly, literally, denotes lazy or ignorant people as "armless" because armless people were (in the history of this epithet's origin) meant in a literal sense, they were the name-giver, directly, for the connotation of laziness.
As that, this is not a metaphor: a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Typical metaphor examples [link] are "I am boiling mad" (whereas the body temperature still does not exceed 38 deg C, and no liquids are vaporized); "war is the mother of all battles" (whereas war is not a biological female parent of a battle). Here, a stereotypically perceived inability to act or work was literally attached to loss of an arm or arms in form of a generalized attribution. Then, that negative attribution is used to denote people that appear to be similarly restricted in a less structural or anatomical but more functional way. Even if they are not similarly restricted, linguistic microaggression pushes this perception towards them, whereas the application of such an epithet generally constitutes a form of micro-hysteria, micro-exaggeration or micro-dramatisation: the person accused of being an "armless John" does not really lack arms.
What happens with the use of the epithet "armless John" for lazy people is therefore similar to calling a person that does not reflect or think sufficiently a "retard" [link]: the term "retard" is also not a metaphor, but a similarly constructed and related epithet. It is considered highly offensive. More examples of undoubtedly similarly highly offensive significance with an analog linguistic construction are "blonde moment" [link], "gay shit" [link], "crippled midget" [link] or "lame ass" [link].
So in other words, the origin of a class of epithets, to which "armless John" belongs, appears to always start with a group of people whose fixed, aspect related, sexuality related, illness related or condition related attribution is stereotypically connotated, and the resulting epithet then is applied more freely to any situation or person that happens to be broadely or crudely perceived to fall under some criteria of the originating concept. Broad application of terms such as insane, crazy or lame are no less ableist [link].
- [link] João sem braço – ‘John without arms’ (...) Apparently back in the days that Portugal was at war, people who had lost limbs were excused from fighting (seems reasonable) and relied on others for help. Over the years this evolved into a phrase to describe someone feigning helplessness or ignorance. The best English translation would be to ‘play dumb’.
- [link] According to the Almanaque Brasil, the supposed origin of the term Joao-sem-arm to designate lazy people who flee from their responsibilities dates back to historical events, especially when countries faced constant wars. In Portugal, for example, the mutilated and wounded were exempted from working or fighting in battles, due to their condition. For this reason, many healthy men assumed that they did not have their members either, and so escaped their obligations to the country. Over time, the expression that was previously interpreted literally came to be considered a metaphor, referring to people who pretend to be disguised to avoid fulfilling tasks, for example.
- [link] The expression "joan-without-arm" refers to the lazy, the omission or the cheater. Originally, the beggar was tying one arm or two under his clothing, pretending to be mutilated from war to obtain the desired alms, giving a john-without-arm. But there were other sincere johns without arms, many of whom were attended by the Holy Houses of Mercy, the first of which was founded in Portugal in the fifteenth century by Queen Dona Leonor, the "most perfect princess." In Rio, the Street of the Invalides testifies to tradition. It still retains the same name it had at the end of the eighteenth century, because an asylum had been built there for retired military personnel, that is, retired. They were temporarily prevented from working. And many went to the street to beg. The expression has deep historical roots. Portugal was formed and consolidated its power through successive wars, fought in the own territory or in its colonies, producing many mutilados of war.
- [link] Discrimination generally is known to also be embedded in language, structurally. That does not make it less discriminating, mind you. Language isn't just something we use to communicate; it also may structure the ways in which we think, and how we process values and beliefs.
- [link] "Foucault (1972) convincingly argued, however, that language and discourse do not innocently reflect, or “mirror,” a transparent, pregiven reality, but rather construct social reality as pregiven. (..) Linguistic and discursive practices are primary mediums through which asymmetrical forms of social power are generated, sustained, and reproduced."
Now: old phrases such as this usually become integrated part of an unreflected language [link]. And that is to a degree or in certain ways fine, inasmuch as we all surf in the wake of tons of old shit as inevitability of our respective cultures [link]. However, if one discusses the actualities of discriminating language, if one describes discrimination creep or slippage into our unconscious, which is where values are promoted insidiously, this is a prime example [link]. You do not have to be a geek in representing disability in an ableist world: all it takes is a short step back and reflection of meaning and background of "armless John" as the negative epithet that it is, right before our eyes. A person that uses this epithet may well do so without actual consideration or active will to discriminate anyone - but that act is adequately tagged by the term "inconsiderate". So, you may want to consider, also this, after all, as not doing so may expose you, or put you at a certain risk.
"Joao sem braco" implies that arm amputees are accepted to work less than others. It implies, i.e., suggests indirectly, that they obtain the same reward for working less. Clearly that is not the case: arm amputees world wide usually have no option to work less or get exempt from stuff, so we need to keep at it, an arm amputee like everyone else has to go work and get pay in order to make a living. If they work less, they get paid less. The saying thus starts out by devaluing the work ethic and work capacity of arm amputees in general. It marks us as less proficient or motivated to begin with. It wrongly presumes that arm amputation somehow predisposes to less work, or even, in the next step where the adjective is transferred, to ignorance and laziness. That is neither correct nor particularly polite or respectful. If anything, it requires a discriminating view and attitude, be it subconsciously or consciously, actively or passively accepting.
"Joao sem braco" transfers the "technical difficulty of arm amputees to perform certain tasks" as attribute to "the ignorance or laziness of a particular non-amputee to perform any task", and then uses that (in itself unacceptable) transfer in order to reversely imply that arm amputees are also lazy, and that arm amputees also are not technically challenged for some tasks but generally challenged to do any task.
That is what, when its actual use and meaning as well as origin are analyzed in context, it really means for amputees to be used as that.
So, no, it is not meant as a compliment, no, it is not neutral, and, yes, it transfers a physical disability term itself ("armless"), that stems from a time when arm amputees and other people apparently had to figure out who could or could not work this or that job, to signify a different negative mostly behavioral aspect that in itself has no directly amputation-related but socially attributed ties to the handicap itself. And that is where context is a real bitch: it works in both ways. Proverbially speaking, this epithet uses arm amputees, or, more precisely, a negative perception of our predicament, in order to mop the floor. And that is why this is offensive as that. You may obviously go ahead and use us, us arm amputees, as your personal verbal floor mop alright when you go about your attempts in trying to make lazy or ignorant people look bad - but do not act surprised if that backfires.