Campaign to End the ‘R-word’ Is Over the Top

We are sure that Gov. Carcieri, Best Buddies, and the Special Olympics have the noblest of intentions in calling for an end to the use of ‘retard’ in everyday conversation, but we don’t see how dumbing down the English language does anything to advance the cause of those with mental or development disabilities. Unless you’re on an elementary school playground—or near Rahm Emanuel—‘retard’ isn’t really a common insult. And the best way to change that, besides some good old-fashioned discipline, is to educate people about what the word really means, not have them expunge it from their vocabularies. Here is how Merriam-Webster defines retard:

transitive verb

1 : to slow up especially by preventing or hindering advance or accomplishment
2 : to delay academic progress by failure to promote

intransitive verb : to undergo retardation is a little more explicit, defining retard as to make slow; delay the development or progress of ; hinder or impede. As an intransitive verb it means to be delayed.

So to say, ‘retard’ is just another way of saying delayed development. It comes from tardus, the same Latin word form which we get tardy and retardant (as in fire retardant), so maybe we should get rid of those words too, because they might remind us of the ‘R-word.’ Of course, one should never go up to someone who is developmentally disabled and call them a ‘retard,’ however technically appropriate the word would be in describing their condition. But then, neither would it be acceptable to call them ‘developmentally disabled’ to their faces. Just like you should never call people cripple, mute, or deaf to their faces, but those words are still in our dictionaries and have their uses in their proper contexts. Which brings us back to retard. One entirely appropriate use of the word is in the name of a state department: the Rhode Island Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals. But now, Carcieri and others are trying to change that too. One state rep wants to rename it the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals. So what happens when ‘developmentally disabled’ becomes an insult too?


3 responses to “Campaign to End the ‘R-word’ Is Over the Top

  1. I think you will agree that the English Language evolves over time. By your own account (referencing the sources above) the use of the word “idiot” would be appropriate as well, as the dictionary indicates that it was originally utilized to describe someone with “mental retardation”. I think anyone would tell you that if you called them an “idiot” it would be considered an insult. The term “retard” has taken the same path of evolution as the term “idiot”. It has become a label that is used as an insult in the English Language, and should therefore be eliminated from the diagnostic manuals. Perhaps someday the term “developmentally disabled” will be used as an insult, and if that happens it should be banned too.

    • Ms. Hunt brings up a valid point about the evolution of language. I certainly do agree that language evolves over time. The question is how that evolution ought to proceed. Do we want language to evolve in a way that expands our vocabulary and our understanding of the words contained within? Or will it change in a way that diminishes our knowledge of the English language? In the case of the word ‘retard,’ I think the solution is education. Children should be taught to avoid using the word in the daily vocabulary, just as they should refrain from using profanities in class or on the playground.

      You are correct, ‘idiot’ was once used to describe the lowest level of mental retardation. But you are incorrect about it following the same path as ‘retard.’ The word ‘idiot’ comes from the Greek, idiotes, which literally meant ‘a private person’ or an ‘individual.’ In the Middle Ages it referred to someone who was uneducated or ignorant. And, in the late nineteenth century, it was still being used in a derogatory sense. For example, Mark Twain called members of Congress ‘idiots.’ It wasn’t until early in the twentieth century, that ‘idiot’ was used to classify a certain range of mental ability.

      ‘Retard’ on the other hand, was used in a more technical context to refer to slowed childhood development. It didn’t become a slang word until the 1970s. So, in fact, the two paths are opposite: ‘idiot’ started out in popular usage and later entered clinical vocabularies, whereas ‘retard’ began as a clinical term then spread to popular usage. And, unlike ‘idiot,’ which has a broad meaning, ‘retard’ has a specific and useful meaning. ‘Retard,’ as I already stated, means to ‘slow or delay the development of.’ So, to speak of someone as having ‘mental retardation’ is the same as saying they are ‘developmentally disabled.’

  2. The word “retard” has been carelessly used and as a result its meaning presents itself (to most people) as extremely hurtful and insulting. Words are powerful and whether we like it or not, our word choice can mean the difference between someone feeling good or feeling really bad. I care about people’s feelings too much to risk hurting them… therefore I support the ban.

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