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.
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.