Sunday 18 March 2007This is over 16 years old. Be careful.

There was a letter in the Miss Conduct column in the Boston Globe magazine about the use of the word “retarded”. What I didn’t know when I read it was that it was written by a friend.

I’ve had similar conversations with co-workers who use “retarded” in an off-hand way. What people don’t seem to realize is that mental retardation is a very serious topic for those of us who deal with it everyday. The colloquial use of retarded is not just to describe something as bad, but as bad in a funny way. Many people object to the use of retarded to mean bad, but I also object to it meaning trivializable.

Objecting to this usage can be a tricky line to walk, since most people don’t use the word intentionally to hurt people, and especially since it is used humourously, it can be awkward to make a point about it. The people who say “retarded” don’t mean to trivialize the disabled, but that is what they are doing. It hurts to hear people dismiss an entire population so lightly.

If you find yourself using the word retarded to make people laugh, would you do me a favor and think twice? Thanks.


Agreed and well spoken
Nice post. Coincidentally, I just read this essay by high school senior Soeren Palumbo about his thoughts on the word "retard". Really good.

On a related note, I've been meaning to post about a pejorative that I've been hearing a lot recently: "taking the short bus". It's effectively the same sort of careless dismissal of mental retardation and not funny when used as a put down.
It shouldn't ever be awkward to make the point about such dysphemisms though it is. By the same principle, I am bothered when people talk about competitive sports or video gaming and invoke words like "rape"/"kill"/"own" to describe winning. It's like with the same sex marriage thread, though I don't share the same view of others, I don't describe some point as "that's so gay" just because I don't agree with it or see it as invalid.
Did you know that the word "moron" used the have the same meaning?

Yet nowadays moron has an entirely different meaning: stupid, dolt and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who knows its origin.

The problem is not with the people but how the language evolves. The words we end up choosing to describe handicapped people slowly transfuse into everyday use and there is little one can do about it. The same thing will happen (is happening) with the word "retarded".
I find that mostly when people use the word retarded, they just don't understand how hurtful it can be. That being said, I don't watch Larry The Cable Guy anymore because he is just plain mean. Someone bought his Christmas CD for us and it was just a diatribe against people with disabilities. Funny? Not to me.
I do feel for you. I experience a similar sensation when people jokingly put a finger to their head like a gun and pull the trigger or slip a fake rope around their neck and mimic being hanged. For those who have known suicide these simple actions have lost their humor. In fact they can be a very painful reminder and bring back images best forgotten. The thing is though, I don't mind people who do it. Like you said, I know they aren't purposely trying to hurt me. I would rather they make bad and unfunny jokes than feel they need to watch what they say around me.
My fiance has a friend who's son has special needs and he gets really riled up on how the terms keep getting misused and eventually the terms are usurped and twisted to have meanings they shouldn't have. It shouldn't be bad to be retarded, special, "ride the short bus", ... Allowing the people you know to abuse these words in this way is a disservice to everyone particularly people with special needs.

Similarly with rape--there is _nothing_ funny about rape including prison rape.

I think it's better to stand up for your values and educate people as to what they're saying and how it differs from what they think they're saying. If you don't educate them, then who will? Figure you're saving them from disgrace at some later point.

What I found notable in all this is that the Globe columnist, without any hint of irony, suggested "dumb" as an acceptable alternative, as if mute people wouldn't be offended by that.

Or maybe precisely because, as noname stated above, that word has moved on. And the same thing is happening to "retarded." (Which probably means that in 20 years we can expect to hear people saying stuff like "that Paris Hilton Jr., she's so developmentally disabled.")
Would you believe that I have used the phrase 'brain damaged' (not in a mean way or against anybody in particular, the way I remember it) and even found myself using it (stopping me cold) in an offhand way to describe some concept or situation some time after I learned that my own newborn son has suffered permanent brain damage as the result of oxygen shortage before birth. It is shocking to me that I never thought of myself as foul mouthed but previously did not give any thought to the pain so many people are experiencing because of all too real situation like my son's.
Sorta like how I get offended at “that’s so gay” (as a pejorative)?

Or a sweetheart who is hurt every time he hears the epithet “bastard”?

Or an old friend who is still affected by his rape, 30 years later?
My four-year-old nephew is mildly autistic and otherwise mentally handicapped, so I, too, am sensitive to the word "retarded"... but only when it's used as a pejorative.

Quite often, when a word becomes pejorative in some contexts, many people consider any use of the word pejorative. The word "retard" has been around for more than 500 years and I, for one, have never been one to throw the baby out with the lexical bathwater.

I have no problem with the word "retard" if it's used as a verb to describe the act of impeding or slowing something down. "Retarded" is perfectly acceptable to me if something has been slowed down. And, more importantly, I pose no objection to calling someone "mentally retarded" if they have been diagnosed with a mental condition that causes them to develop much slower than normal.

Should we change the term of a substance that slows the spread of fire from "fire retardant" to something more PC like "fire handicapping?" because some people use the word "retard" pejoratively? (No, "fire-resistant" is not the same thing.)

It's OK to take offense to words when they're used pejoratively, but can't some people just apply a little common sense with these things? (I'm not even going to get into the ridiculousness of the furor that erupts every time someone uses the word "niggardly.")
When I was small we would be told off severely if we used words like "retarded" or "spastic" as insults; because of this, the casual use of "retard" and "tard" on American websites makes me flinch a little. They are in the wrong register for humour. (And to be honest, the modern affectation of using childhood insults in order to be rude and cute at the same time is getting a little stale.)
You are a fool if you think you can go through life without being offended.

There is a fine line between educating someone and acting like a arrogant jerk.

Many of these comments seem to be wishing for a world where only nice things are said, And and that world has shiny unicorns prancing in large grassy meadows. Nearly every word to describe another person or thing in a negative condition, could be subject to these same restrictions, you would like to see placed on the words that bother you.

So Dennis if we cannot use retarded or dumb, what would you prefer? If the only idea is to not say potentially hurtful things sends you back out with the unicorns.

Maybe I should just say that one guy at work has special needs. And that other guy he is vertically challenged.
Okay so after a rereading I come across as somewhat of a jerk.

And my parting shot was certainly not called for. Perhaps in the future I should, think a little long before hitting the addit button.
I noticed that Geiko is now using cavemen as their fall guy for the jokes about being stupid. It is no longer socially acceptable to use people of different ethnicities or mental abilities in jokes, but cavemen are safe because there aren't any around. I think about the only other "safe" target would be aliens.

When I was a kid all the jokes usually had two or three different cultural groups in them and everyone told them. It is a different world. I see that as a good thing. Either way, it's not likely that we can really do much about it. I think a lot of it comes from lawsuits, really. People on TV are afraid of getting sued or losing their audience and that trickles down to everyone else. I don't mind. If it keeps my son from being called retarded (or calling others that) then I am good with that.
Retarded is not an acceptable pejorative. I think dumb is - dumb has dual meanings (mute and stupid), retarded does not. When you call someone dumb, you're not evoking a picture of someone who can't speak, but most of the time when you call someone retarded, you are evoking a picture of someone who is mentally handicapped. That's the difference, and that's what makes retarded unacceptable.

Gay is another one of those words that is simply not acceptable to use as a pejorative for the same reason as above.

I never use retarded or gay as pejoratives. I don't think there's anything wrong with using them as accurate descriptors (generally "mentally retarded" to avoid misunderstandings).

No, we don't have to be hyper sensitive, and idiotic stuff like getting offended at "niggardly" is a good example. But I don't think getting mad that people use your handicap as an insult is over the line at all.
As I understand it, "retarded" is no longer used to describe the developmentally challenged. So why would anyone judge describing a movie plot or other process "retarded" as being offensive to devepmentally-challenged people? The word's unused at the moment, so why not agree on a new usage unrelated to people?
That's not true. My son has "secondary" mental retardation. It is still a valid diagnostic criteria. The office that services his programs is the MR office and I am sure you can guess what the R stands for.
Why do we have to impose our own sensitivities on everyone around us? Someone might say "that movie was retarded" and then suddenly we're up in arms about people with mental disabilities.

Frankly, the only way to avoid offending everyone is to simply say nothing since even uttering the words "love" or "success" might summon someone's injured feelings about lost loves and missed opportunities. However, I think that there's nothing more intrinsically offensive than believing that everyone should share your sensitivities and sentimentalities.

“Why do we have to impose our own sensitivities on everyone around us?”

Because (the rest of us?) are part of a society. Treating one another with courtesy & respect are generally considered positive qualities. Casually demeaning each other isn’t.

Nobody expects perfection; all anyone asks is some polite consideration and good faith effort. It is when those aren’t forthcoming that you’re considered rude, boorish, even anti-social.

I had thought “The Golden Rule” (treat others as you wish to be treated) was generally understood. Apparently it is still a novel concept to some.

Great post! I completely agree. Any adult who drops the word "retarded" casually into their conversation instantly drops about a hundred points in my estimation. I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but on this issue it is hard.

I have spoken up about it before...with only mixed results, so I am glad to see you raise the topic on your blog.
I can usually agree with any of your posts, but I'm a huge supporter of the notion that refraining from a "bad word" is the only thing that makes it worse. The same thing is true for the word "retarded" or "The N Word" or anything else of that order. When no one things twice about the speaking of the word, only then does it hurt no one. Do you think if a word that had negative meaning was used only in the most proper form, it would suddenly be free of hurt? Of course not, because it would carry with it the weight of all those places and times you can't say it. The word itself would become a reminder of its own badness. When we free a word from its proper place, we free it from being shackled to all the reasons we try to refrain from it outside the polite contexts.

Am I only saying this because I'm a hyper free speech supporter? Do I think I have the right only because I have mentally disabled family myself? Who knows, but i don't think the points on either side can be dismissed lightly.
I completely agree with both Michael and Calvin. I believe that it isn't the words that carry the weight, it's the meaning or message behind them. The words themselves are irrelevant; the words are only the vehicle.
I remember years ago when I was carrying my library books in an old tote bag that belonged to mom. The tote bag depicted a 1982 10 cent stamp and read "Retarded Children Can Be Helped" and was a gift that a foundation sent to people who made monetary donations. This lady came up to me and started screaming in my face about how the correct term was "mentally challenged" and that I was an idiot if I thought it was okay to carry that tote bag in public.

I never did use the word retarded even as a joke, but if I hear someone lashing out at someone who has I have a hard time believing that they are doing it for any other reason than an excuse to go off on a self righteous tirade. Even though I've never heard anyone else go off like the woman who went off on me, I don't take the argument seriously.

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