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:
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
Dictionary.com 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?