“Retard” and other disability-insults.

| May 21, 2011 | 7 Replies

The word “retard” possessed dual meanings for a long time. First used as a term for intellectual disability in 1788, the word took on a pejorative sense in the 1970s. For thirty years the two meanings curiously co-existed. Universities had “Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability” Departments and students who drunkenly called one another ‘retards’ for lobbing bad beer-pong balls, and the two existed in tandem.

Image courtesy of the Special Olympics

But once medical and social service experts finally disavowed the word ‘retard’, it vanished from official usage with amazing swiftness. The Special Olympics ceased using the ‘r-word’ in 2004, initiating the trend. In 2006, the (former) American Association of Mental Retardation changed its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

By 2008, Special Olympics turned the abolishment of ‘retard’ into a full-time effort and launched R-word.org. The site protested the derogatory use of ‘retard’ (including a protest campaign against the 2008 film Tropic Thunder, which featured a lengthy discussion on ‘retard’ roles in film). Special Olympics and R-word.org also pushed for their fellow disability-service organizations to drop the term.

In 2010, ‘retard’ was legally banished from the professional lexicon. On October 5 of last year, Obama signed “Rosa’s Law”, which banned the use of “retard” in all federal health, education, and labor policy. “Intellectual disability” and “developmental disability” became the approved nomenclature. Non-federal organizations followed hastily: in Ohio, Google directs you to the “Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities“, but the website itself has already been scrubbed of the R-word(even if the url still has the dreaded ‘r’ in it).

It’s official: ‘retard’ has no place in formal usage. Once a medical term for someone with an intellectual disability, it lives now only as an insult. One that means, roughly, unintelligent.

Like moron, which began as medical terminology for one with a mental age of 8 to 12.

Or imbecile, which meant ‘a mental age of 6 to 9‘.

Or idiot, which referred to a ‘mentally deficient person‘ or one ‘incapable of reasoning’ (‘village idiots’ were likely intellectually disabled, just as elves were perhaps people with Williams Syndrome.)

Or cretin, which meant ‘a dwarfed and deformed idiot’.

Or fool, which meant ‘mentally ill’.

Or oaf, which meant ‘misbegotten, deformed idiot’.

And these are just the insult-words for mental disabilities. Other disabilities are used as insults, too.

Dumb originally meant ‘incapable of speech’.

Lame meant unable to walk.

A lot of words that now mean ‘stupid’ began as terms for mental or physical disability. This movement– from serious term to insult– is a longstanding linguistic phenomenon called pejoration. Specifically, it’s an example of the euphemistic treadmill, whereby new, politically correct words eventually attain the same status as the slurs they meant to upend.

This phenomenon makes me doubt that the “R-word” will become fully taboo in the manner of racial or sexual slurs. Instead, the word might become benignly synonymous with ‘unintelligent’, and persist in insult-usage until we all forget its origins.

It might even be easy to divorce the word from its original meaning, as ‘retard’ was such a terrible technical term to begin with. People with intellectual disabilities are not retarded, in the sense that they are not mentally slowed or stilted in development. People with intellectual disabilities have cognitive impairments that present permanent challenges. Those with disabilities are not “behind”- they are differently-abled for life. Since ‘retard’ is so far from the reality of disabled people, it might come to mean merely ‘stupid’ very soon.

If ‘retard’ stays in the insult catalogue in ensuing years, we should take it as a sign that our efforts need recalibration. Our problem is larger than a single ‘bad’ word. We have been turning the terms for intellectual disabilities into insults for centuries. Whatever ultimately replaces ‘retard’ as medical terminology could go the same way- maybe “DD” (for ‘developmental disability’) will become a slur? The problem is not the lexicon- it’s that we still find disability offensive. And as long as we find disability itself insulting, we will keep making insults from disability-words.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Censorship, Communication, Community, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Education, Health, History, Language, Neologism, Social justice, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (7)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    The denotative meaning of "retard" is "to impede, delay or slow down". In the clinical sense, describing an individual whose intellectual development lags behind the majority of their peers, mentally reeetarded is accurate. Similarly, someone wose intellectual development is ahead of the majority is mentally advanced.

    What makes a word offensive?

    The answer lies within one's own cultural norms. In our culture intelligence is prized. lower intelligence is seen by many as inferior. What makes a word offensive is when it can be used to imply someone is inferior,

    The problem will not be solved by simply baning a word here and there, because new words and terms withe similar meaning will replace the banned word. Such bans have al the effectiveness of using a band-aid to treat a bullet wound. The problem we should address is in finding more acceptance in our society for disabled peopl, so they are noot thought df as inferior.

  2. Erika Price says:

    Niklaus: "Delayed" and "advanced are certainly still acceptable terminology, but I would really argue that they are flawed in the same way 'retard' is. As you point out, retard means 'delay' or 'slow down'; like the use of 'developmentally delayed' or 'advanced', it creates a really misleading notion that we are all on the same continuum of development, and that the less able are merely 'behind'. This is wrong because a) the developmentally disabled eventually hit a ceiling, depending on their impairment, at which they no longer develop cognitively (so it's not a matter of being behind so much as stopping abruptly'); and b) the disabled are not uniformly 'behind' on all cognitive abilities.

    I'll elaborate on the second a little to clarify. Even though past terms suggested otherwise, the disabled don't really have a mental age of five, or two, or seven, or any other age. They haven't developed the same way typical humans have, so it's not like they are locked into a conventional age of development. William's children, for example, have vastly impaired problem-solving and emotional regulation abilities but terrific verbal skills. So if we use the age/development analogy for them, it falls utterly flat. They can be 'age 2' mathematically but 'age 10' verbally. Many developmental disabilities have this or other hodgepodges.

    The obverse is true of the cognitively 'advanced'. One can be 'advanced' in mathematics but 'average' in social skills, et cetera. It's not as though the especially brilliant are cognitively 'farther along' than all of us. Like the disabled, they are differently-abled; it's not really a matter of maturation/development.

    Plus, terms like "differently abled" and the like are more affirming, and describe people with disabilities in terms of their unique traits rather than their deficits. Describing them as "behind" makes them sound like incomplete beings, I think, which is just as unsettling as calling them 'retarded'. I think I'm in the minority in finding 'delayed' problematic, though.

  3. Miles says:

    Some people are disabled by physiological processes out of their control, and that sucks. Life is like that sometimes though, and you can choose to value people by how they handle the shit life throws them rather than by how much they contribute. You can encourage others to do the same, but don't throw the positive trait of excelling at an ability under the bus to do it.

    Other people are morally and intellectually disabled by lack of effort on their own part or by poor training/upbringing. Conservatives and religious people are prime examples: to be either you have to be morally or intellectually disabled in some way. Faith at its core requires a lack of interest in the truth of a claim, and conservatism requires satisfaction with the poor and disenfranchised leading lives of squalid desperation rightfully exploited by the powerful and influential.

    The inability of most people to think rationally and scientifically is deeply insulting, and I am so tired of liberals championing the cause of treating the developmentally disabled like people that they discount ability as worthless.

    Am I the only liberal who finds the attempt to mainstream disability an insult to the rest of the population? I don't think disability means "differently abled." I think it means there are some things you can't do as well as most people. It means you are below average in some way – a way that may or may not matter very much, but it still means you are deficient, and any attempt to deny that with PC language will likely only hurt all parties involved.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    My older son, who is 17, has late-onset autism. He has severe expressive language skills, and will probably never get better.Over the years I've seen a variety of responses frm the uninformed, as I see it, changing the label doesn't address the underlying problem: That uninformed people think of handicapped individuals as incomplete and inferior.

    At one time, the word "mongoloid" was used a a label for victims of Down's syndrome. The word became an insult, but what has made it a forgotten insul was the public acceptances of Down's syndrome as a disability where its victims are not perceived as somehow being incomplete.

    Another contributing factor is the current focus by politicos and media on educational achievement through competition. Everyone has different aptitudes. Some are better at Math, some are good at science, some are better at sports and some are better at art. Some may even be good at taking the tests that are used to assess what they are good at.

  5. Erika Price says:

    This post actually began as a tight-lipped defense of the word 'retard' as an insult. I hear it used casually to mean 'stupid' all the time, and sometimes say it myself, though it's rapidly becoming unacceptable around liberal- and PC-minded friends. I've always bristled at the idea that abolishing a word will fix the mindset that created that word. I think unless you change the culture, a new nasty term will arise, so getting rid of taboo words is something of an attempt to make tail wag dog.

    But even if 'retard' just meant 'stupid', would it be OK to use? Aren't stupid-but-undisabled people just as faultless as the disabled? Shouldn't the insult be something like 'lazy' or 'willfully ignorant' or 'incurious'? Something over which a person has a modicum of control?

    I'm pretty conflicted over this. But I think granting common, humanizing respect to people of all ability levels is where to start, rather than sweating the semantics.

  6. Erika,

    Good questions. I worked for a man once who seemed obsessed with slinging racial epithets around, one in particular, and I always called him on it. One day we had a conversation that went something like this:

    Me: what is it your really mean when you say that?

    Him: that they're assholes.

    Me: then why not just call them assholes? If a white man pisses you off, you called him an asshole. Why the separate tag?

    Him: because they're ____!

    Later I heard a study about expletives that tied them to nonlinguistic "flinch" reactions—that basically a cuss word does not arise from the same part of the brain that most other language comes from, but is tied directly to a sudden emotion reaction, and therefore serves a different purpose. I suspect derogations like these have similar origins/functions and used thoughtlessly as emotional expressions disconnected with any rational use of language.

    I'm not sure how much of this I buy, but just an intuitive sense of the uses of cussing and epithets suggests to me that using context-appropriate terms in lieu of the epithet simply fails to satisfy the emotional drive behind them.

    We can try to "tone it down" by applying social disapproval—as has been done in the past to cussing in general—but given how quickly such words repopulate the discourse once the restraints are loosened, clearly just keeping people from using the words does nothing to address the underlying causes of their use.

    It seems human nature to draw comparisons and in some instances use those comparisons as the basis to enhance self-image—"I'm not like them!"—regardless of the validity of the comparison. The only antidote would appear to be a general move toward self-awareness and the use of reason, and as we note here often, that's an uphill battle.

    To me, though, the use of the term Stupid has nothing to do with a handicap other than the willful refusal to utilize one's resources. Someone who is capable of knowing better and has an opportunity to know better who simply won't, because it doesn't comport with other aspects of their worldview, despite repeated exposure to salubrious examples and knowledge—that's Stupid. Lazy doesn't quite describe this condition, as I've met many lazy people who are by no means stupid, and ignorance is a lack of opportunity that can be rectified.

    Your last sentence is dead on.

  7. Nik Schuetz says:

    #1 I was not cited.

    #2 You totally could have taken a harder line on the "wag the dog's tail" fallacy of politically correct language, although you were just beginning to get that point across with your last few sentences.

    "This is Politically Correct English's core fallacy – that a society's mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes (F.N.1) – and of course it's nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative SNOOT's delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting changes in standard usage (F.N.2)"

    F.N.1: (A pithier way to pit this is that politeness is not teh same as fairness)
    F.N.2: E.g., this is the reason behind Pop Prescriptivists' complaint that shoddy usage signifies the Decline of Western Civilization

    -(The part in quotes is from a David Foster Wallace essay titled "Authority and American Usage")

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.