Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I tend to fixate on topics related to speech and language, so my saying that I’ve been allotting a large about of my mental processes specifically to them should come as no surprise to people who know me or people who read this blog. However, recently, I’ve been considering the power of bad words — not swears in the traditional sense but words that one group or another would object to. In some cases, these words are considered to be disparaging. In other cases, they mark the person using them as being uneducated, inconsiderate or bigoted. The one in particular that got me going on this track is the title of this post.

Since I can remember, people have used the word retarded to describe a thing that is dysfunctional, poorly thought out or in some other way unusual-and-therefore-bad. To many people, using the word in this manner implies a slight against the mentally or developmentally disabled. However, many others continue to use retarded even though they have no animosity toward this particular group. So why, then, do people — myself included, I should admit — continue to use it?

First, the word retarded meets the criteria of many curse words: it feels good to say. In English, many of the great no-no words lend themselves to emphatic, cathartic pronunciation, especially when the speaker is angry or frustrated. The one major exception I can think of is ass, whose sibilant end kind of slides into a hiss that feels differently than the monosyllabic wonders like fuck, shit, damn and bitch. Even when a word is more than one syllable, there’s one in there somewhere that can be struck like a gong: the first in dickwad, for example. In retarded, it’s the second syllable. Saying it takes some wind of the speaker — in a good way, though people hearing this speech might disagree.

The other reason I feel retarded persists among people who wouldn’t use similar words — such Jew as a verb or a lot of uses of the word gay — is that most people probably don’t have reason to think about actual mentally disabled individuals. They likely don’t know any one who has these problems and don’t spend enough time around them to warrant considering their feelings.

Now, neither of these preceding theories should be considered excuses for using the word. I know it’s bad to say it, and I know certain people think less of me for doing so, and so I’m resolving to avoid it.

However, it’s interesting to consider that this use of the word retarded actually enjoys quite a bit of good company, if you will, in the way English-speakers refer to things considered to be bad. Most of the words we use to describe people or situations that don’t work the way we’d like them to seem to knock a given physically or mentally disadvantaged group. Lame — as in “a lame excuse,” “a lame duck president” “This party is lame, let’s leave” — technically goes back to crippled people, but no one things about people using this slang term as having an axe to grind against anyone with a physical disability. It’s not considered offensive, at least according to Merriam-Webster, though in many ways it works similarly to the way retarded does. There are others. Spaz works similarly to lame in the U.S., though it’s considered quite offensive in the U.K. Crazy could be offensive to people with mental disorders. Moron, idiot and imbecile were all at one point used to describe people with varying levels of mental disability. Even the innocent-seeming dumb seems like it has it out for mute people.

So what’s up, then? From what I’ve read, most smart people with something to say on the subject seem to think that all the words up in the preceding paragraph have been distanced enough from the conditions they once described that they now don’t smack of prejudice or ignorance when they’re spoken in casual conversation. Nobody in step with contemporary culture would describe a physically disabled person as lame. (Really, people are also increasingly less likely to say crippled, too. I only used it early to avoid the awkwardness of saying physically disabled twice in a row.) And when people hear moronic or crazy or any of the others, their first association isn’t the disabilities but the less severe everyday mental failings that all people deal with — the stupid, to use a common term that doesn’t seem to have ever been associated with a specific ailment.

I suppose if the word retarded is to ever lose its ability to offend, then a substantial amount of time would have to pass during which people used it to describe mentally disabled people less and less often, to the point that eventually no one would think of the actual condition when they heard it. We already have the substitute: mentally or developmentally disabled, neither of which are not fun to say and both of which are clinical-sounding enough that I don’t think they could ever assume the role currently occupied by retarded. That being said, however, I honestly can’t imagine retarded ever becoming as appropriate for polite conversation as dumb or idiotic. Language trends come and go, but I feel like the associations we have with retarded may be so strong as to be unbreakable.

Finally, however, some spare thoughts on the subject that, admittedly, may be more relevant to this discussion than their placement in this post would indicate:
I’ve written before on this blog about the tendency for languages to replace the word for “left” when the current one gets so associated with profaneness, strangeness or some other awkwardness that it literally becomes inappropriate to use in polite company. Thus, a new word gets invented and the cycle repeats. Given that humans seem to have a tendency to refer to bad things using words that describe otherness — words for disabled people, non-heterosexual people, women, lefties, etc. — could it be that forbidding or eliminating a certain word is pointless in that people come up with another way to say a given thing? Or will they just turn to a new marginalized group and use their group name to mean something awful?

It’s important to have obscene words. They’re useful, sometimes, and they do wield a certain amount of power. Step into a church and shout one of the big five. People react — and a lot more so than if you said noodles or dust jacket or kitten whiskers.

In some contexts, telling someone not to speak a certain word gives that word power and heightens the temptation to use it.

Sometimes people speak without considering the connotations of their words and therefore need someone else to point these out to them. I can see myself in either of these two roles. However, I never want to be the person who says “Don’t say this.” Short of inciting violence or otherwise endangering public safety, people should be allowed to say what they want. They just need to also prepare themselves for the consequences of saying what they want.

Claiming that a certain word is offensive can be a form of bullying, I feel, among reasonably intelligent people for whom being labeled a bigot would be embarrassing. I took a class once in which a student asked why the people kept using the word homosexual. She found the word offensive because, as she explained, that was the term assigned to same sex-oriented people back when they were considered to be mentally ill. To her, the connotation lingered. The teacher agreed to the we should not use the word homosexual in class. The kicker? This was a course in gay literature. From my perspective, the overall effect was that this class — which consisted of a wide a mix of sorts of people, most of whom seemed at least a little uncomfortable discussing the topics at hand — was silenced, since no one wanted to offend anyone and simply putting sentences together became needlessly difficult. I’m sure this wasn’t the objector’s intention, but I think it’s a good example of how restricting language can create as many problems as it solves.

Another reason I worry about banning specific words is that I like words and I don’t want someone to tell me that I’m not allowed to say a given thing. To me, a liberal-minded young person living in California, that doesn’t seem like too realistic a threat, but I nonetheless feel that forbidding one form of speech could make it easier to forbid another.

I am endlessly amazed at how difficult it can be to turn thoughts in your head into words in your mouth, on a screen or on a page.
Bad words, previously:


  1. B Barnes9:19 PM

    Did you choose not to mention the elephant in the room? The difference between "others" and people with disabilities is that the first group is socially oppressed while the second is also physically limited. In this age of telling everyone that we are all the same and equal, it is taboo to acknowledge that disabled people and especially developmentally disabled people are will not live with the ease that most non-disabled people do. They are still people and they can achieve much but they also must struggle more. It is not an enviable position.

  2. I think "retarded" would have an especially tough time disassociating itself with mental/developmental/whatever conditions because of how it's said at times, especially among school kids (or around that age; I don't know how many young adults or older express the word so emphatically): "We-todd-ehhd!", with the least a head cock and maybe droopy eyes, and at most leaning your upper body and slapping your limp wrist against your chest. The word has a rather poignant representation, unlike the other disability words up there, which are either hard to demonstrate or result in just slacking your muscles, lest you fall over or down.

    In short: You know the visual "retarded" is going for.

  3. Anonymous4:54 PM

    I think you certainly have the right to use the word retarded. You admitted that it feels good to use it which I think is slightly odd but whatever.
    I think you should consider that people with special needs are asking you not to use the word retarded or retard. Why their voices don't matter to you is something you should think about. You shouldn't have to have a family member with special needs to understand what I am saying. That's the sad truth. Oh, and what other slurs make you feel good? just wondering.