Shit hit the fan for Coca-Cola in September 2013 when a woman in Alberta, Canada, opened a bottle of VitaminWater to see “YOU RETARD” printed on the cap. That cap was part of a promotional game in which English words were randomly paired with French ones, and in French retard simply (and innocuously) means late. The company apologized and pulled the promotion after the woman’s father complained, but the fierce reaction to this unfortunate juxtaposition invites a closer look at how retard and retarded developed the connotations they have today.
Retarded as a euphemism
At a 1910 meeting of the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded (seriously), psychologist (and eugenicist) Henry H. Goddard proposed a scale to classify people with intellectual disabilities:
- moron described someone with an IQ of 51–70 (roughly the mental age of someone between 8 and 12 years old)
- imbecile described someone with an IQ of 25–50 (mental age of someone 3 to 7 years old)
- idiot described someone with an IQ below 25 (mental age of someone younger than 3)
Although these terms were meant to be clinical, they quickly made their way into everyday language as pejoratives to describe the foolish or stupid, and by the middle of the twentieth century, the research community had to find another term to describe intellectual disabilities.
In the UK, mental handicap and mental subnormality gained currency, but in North America, mental retardation became the preferred term to describe people who had an IQ below 85 (lowered to 70 in 1973) as well as limited adaptive behaviour (social and practical skills that allow them to function).
The euphemism treadmill
Certain categories of words, like the ones describing defecation or sex, undergo a process of semantic change where a euphemism is introduced but becomes more and more offensive until a new euphemism is needed to take its place. Steven Pinker called this phenomenon the euphemism treadmill.
Retarded is a perfect example of a word on this kind of treadmill. Its use in the sense of “mentally retarded” was recorded in 1895, but shortly after the research community formally adopted it in the 1950s and ’60s to replace Goddard’s classifications, retarded was subsumed into our putrid, roiling vat of insults. The first documented oral use of retard as an offensive noun dates back to 1959.
Now having its turn at the front of the treadmill is “intellectual disability.” Most of us have used this term or others like it for almost two decades now, but in some academic and clinical circles “mental retardation” has only recently been dislodged. The American Association on Mental Retardation didn’t change its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities until 2006, and the American Psychiatric Association formally changed “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability disorder” in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders only when it published the fifth edition in 2013. “Mental retardation” will remain in the World Health’s Organization’s International Classification of Diseases until the WHO releases ICD-11 in 2017.
The r-word movement
Some advocacy groups are actively campaigning to remove retarded from our everyday language and especially from pop culture. In 2008 the Special Olympics and Best Buddies teamed up to launch Spread the Word to End the Word, which asks people to pledge to stop using what they call the r-word. A documentary of the same name hopes to raise awareness of how offensive retard and retarded are to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Usage of retarded
Retarded has been offensive for a good six decades, and by calling it the r-word, advocates for intellectually disabled people are putting it on par with the n-word in its offensiveness. Why are we so reluctant to let go of it?
For the same reason any word in English persists: speakers find it useful.
Semantically, retarded is used for extreme cases where words like stupid and dumb just aren’t strong enough. Intriguingly, despite its initial clinical definition referring to an inherent, unchangeable disability, the word has evolved to describe stubborn and almost deliberate foolishness. Phonologically, retarded, with its stressed syllable beginning with a crisp, voiceless dental alveolar stop, sounds more forceful than either stupid or dumb.
As a modifier, retarded is derived from a verb, and so it feels more natural to use than the adjectives derived from the nouns moron, imbecile, or idiot. Further, it’s more likely than moronic or imbecilic to describe inanimate objects, situations, or abstract concepts. (Idiotic is a contender in that regard.)
Retard the noun is still used for people, of course, and its abbreviation tard has emerged as productive morpheme, yielding words like fucktard and libtard, just in case you needed to intensify your insult or classify the object of your contempt.
Retarded is so useful that it has passionate defenders, including comedians Marc Maron and Christopher Titus. Maron, in interviews and on his podcast, has said,
I know you’re not supposed to say retarded anymore; it’s not politically correct to say retarded, but I like the word retarded, and I want to take it back. I want to re-own it… I grew up with the word retarded, and I think we’re all adults here. I think we know the difference between saying, “That’s sad, that guy’s retarded,” and “That guy’s a retard.” I think we know the difference, and in all honesty, retarded people don’t even call themselves retarded anymore—they call themselves mentally challenged. So they don’t see themselves as retarded.
Unfortunately for Maron, he can no more “take back” the word retarded than white people can take back nigger or heterosexual people can take back faggot, but his point is that the definition of retarded has changed and now no longer applies to people with disabilities, so they have no reason to feel offended. Titus has a similar bit:
In my life, whenever I’ve used the word retard, never have I thought of someone with MS or CP or Down’s or autism…. As a matter of fact, if I ever saw someone calling someone like that retarded, they would have to deal with me physically.
But every man in this room has a buddy who, after his fifth beer, will hang out a car window: “Hey cops! You wanna fight, you bunch of queers?” That guy’s a retard!
To the chagrin of r-word activists, the 2008 film Tropic Thunder breathed new life into the word and even gave it a new collocation. “Never go full retard,” advised Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus to Ben Stiller’s character, Tugg Speedman. Offensive? Of course—Downey Jr. was in blackface, for fuck’s sake. Every part of this satirical movie was meant to be provocative. That particular line, though, spawned a meme, and since then “full retard” has been used to describe all sorts of bad situations getting worse. For instance, author CJ Werleman tweeted this about the 2014 midterm elections in the US:
The fate of retarded
Retard and retarded are at a crossroads, with vocal supporters on both sides of the debate. Will eradicating these words from all clinical references liberate them, allowing them to join moron, imbecile, and idiot as generic insults? Or will awareness and inclusion campaigns prompt us to push the r-word into the margins?
What will also be interesting to see is whether the euphemism treadmill for intellectual disabilities will slow down or stop, given our increased acceptance of diversity and sensitivity to political correctness. To find out, come reread this post in thirty years and let me know if my anachronistic language leaves you aghast.
Huge thanks to my Strong Language co-fuckers’ input on this topic.
For related discussions about attitudes toward spaz and spastic on either side of the Atlantic, see my fellow Strong Language contributors’ posts on other blogs: