En Retard: Part I

The world is changed. Smoking marijuana is hip, but smoking cigarettes is disgusting. Profanity is simply an expression, but racial slang is bigotry. Today we will be discussing the evolution of language, specifically targeting changes caused by increased sensitivity toward certain terms, namely the word retard.

The website www.r-word.org is dedicated to the eradication of the term retard and offers visitors an opportunity to pledge to never use the word again. It also posts stories submitted by those who have been affected by the word. Here’s one from Mia Kraker:

“I was at recess when someone in my class called my friend the r-word. The r-word is extremely hurtful to many people. I am working to stop the r-word and people all over should be, too.”

Now this story definitely isn’t one that sparks faith in humanity, but it’s interesting that the storyteller is expressing dissatisfaction with the perpetrator’s choice in terminology, not the fact that her friend was publicly berated. Here’s another story, submitted by Maggie Scott:

“…in my hallways at school I hear the people call many people many names including the r-word. But why does our world have to be like this? It doesn’t and I’m ready for a change…”

This person is obviously disappointed that her fellow students use derogatory language, as she should be, but she notes that the term retard is only one of “many names” being thrown around. It seems as though Maggie, like Mia, isn’t so much concerned with name-calling or harassment as she is with the use of the word retard, which causes one to wonder why this word is considered especially offensive.

Ellen Seidman, in her article 5 Things People Don’t Get About the Word “Retard”, makes this statement regarding the term, “…The word ‘retarded’ derives from the term ‘mental retardation.’ Years ago, that was a clinical diagnosis used to describe people with intellectual disability. But words evolve and change meaning, as words tend to do, and the words ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ have evolved into insults. In 2010, Congress itself replaced ‘mental retardation’ and ‘mentally retarded’ in federal health, education and labor laws with the term ‘intellectual disability.’ The word ‘retarded’ has morphed into a slur – why many people are shunning the word.”

Seidman is correct, the word retard was once a clinical term that has since devolved into a slur. However, her assertion that people are shunning the word because it is slur is not accurate, for there are many commonly used slurs that our society tolerates. Before we continue, let’s establish a definition of the term slur and distinguish it from its cousin, slang.

Slang is casual or informal language that denotes familiarity with the mundane and reduces discomfort with the taboo. Here are some examples:

  • Money (coin, cheddar, clams)
  • Sex (shag, get lucky)
  • Murder (whack, hit, waste)
  • Automobile (ride, wheels)
  • Cocaine (blow, nose candy, snow)

While slang and slur sometimes overlap, a slur is an offensive term that describes a people group, such as a race or ethnicity. In other words, slur is slang used to insult others by associating them with a type of person, regardless of whether or not the label is accurate.

Unfortunately, this definition is much more broad than we might think. After all, there is no supreme authority determining what is or is’t offensive, for that depends on the audience. Also, if a slur can target any group of people, then this would include every physical, mental, emotional, religious, genetic or social characteristic by which we might be identified. Here’s a list of some groups whose titles are deemed acceptable slurs:

  • Nationality
    • American (Yankee, redneck)
    • Canadian (Canuck, Newfie)
    • British (limey, redcoat)
    • French (frog)
    • German (kraut)
  • Physical Condition
    • Overweight (fat)
    • Underweight (twig, stick)
    • Young (child, baby, immature)
    • Old
    • Crippled (lame)
    • Athletic (jock)
    • Weak (sissy)
    • Intellectual (nerd)
    • Blind
    • Deaf
    • Mute (dumb)
    • Alocholic (boozer, wino)
    • Drug-addicted (junkie, crackhead)
  • Appearance
    • Ugly
    • Red-haired (ginger)
    • Blonde-haired (dumb blonde)
    • Bald (cue ball)
    • Short (shrimp)
    • Acne (crater-face)
    • Glasses (four-eyes)
  • Mental Condition
    • Unintelligent (stupid, idiot, moron, imbecile)
    • Schizophrenic (crazy, nut, fruitcake)
    • Psychopath (insane, psycho, wacko)
    • Depressed (emo)
  • Social or Economic Status
    • Poor (trailer trash)
    • Wealthy (spoiled, filthy rich)
    • Uneducated (stupid, dunce)
    • Unemployed (deadbeat)
    • Unsuccessful (loser, failure)
  • Profession
    • Police Officer (pig, narc, dick)
    • Lawyer (rat, shyster)
    • Psychologist (shrink)
    • Janitor
    • Prostitute (hooker, hoe)
    • Used Car Salesperson
    • Taxi Driver (cabbie)
    • Carnival Employee (carny)

It’s difficult to determine why terms like redneck and redcoat are acceptable, while redskin is considered unacceptable, or why it’s okay to mock someone for wearing glasses, but not for using a wheelchair. Regardless, it’s obvious that using a label or characteristic to attack others is not in itself enough to incur public rejection. Perhaps, then, it’s the fact that retard was once a clinical term that causes the controversy, but the terms idiot, lame, and crazy were also used to describe medical or psychological conditions and are now considered acceptable.

As Maggie Scott’s story revealed, we use a variety of words to insult one another, so what makes retard uniquely objectionable? To answer this question, we must first understand how and why words become insults.

If we ponder classic insults such as fat, poor, stupid or ugly, we realize that they share something in common, and that is an association with negativity. Implicit-association tests reveal that we all harbor unconscious positive and negative sentiments toward certain people groups. The origin of these associations is not always understood, but it’s not hard to imagine why a person would hold a negative view of ugliness or stupidity. The truth, no matter how we dress it up, is that we don’t want to be fat, poor, stupid, ugly or retarded, and this is the foundation for every insult – a negative association between a term and a condition.

As we grow and interact, we absorb and catalog information, whether we’re aware of it or not. Part of this process involves learning which personality traits, professions and body shapes are undesirable. Parents, teachers, friends, magazines, television and movies all reveal expectations and role models as well as examples of failure and corruption. Even at a young age, children are well aware of the values and qualities that their culture deems unacceptable, and they have firmly established negative associations. This is exemplified by the schoolyard bullying and teasing that most children endure.

So what’s the real problem here? Is it that we say words some consider unacceptable, or is it that we use negative characteristics and labels to attack one another? If we’re going to banish retard from our vocabularies, what do we do about all those other slurs, especially the ones that our society deems acceptable?

In part II we’ll find out why there is so much controversy surrounding the word retard and discuss the effectiveness of the r-word movement’s strategy as well as some alternative solutions.