I find it interesting that saying somebody has cancer would not be taken as a joke and yet using
another disease such as mental retardation as an insult is common among society and many do not
realize how offensive it is. The term mental retardation acquired pejorative and shameful connotations
over the last few decades due to the use of “retard” as an insult. A “retard” will usually suffer ridicule
from society because people fear what they do not understand. Those who choose to make fun of
mentally retarded individuals tend to be complete morons and cannot comprehend that these
individuals have feelings and emotions just like anyone else.
The first record of the usage of the word “retard” was in the late 15th century (OED). At that
point in time, the word meant to keep back, hinder, or impede. Now, in 2010, the word “retard” is used
in common vernacular as a replacement for the word “idiot” or “dumb.” This was not a direct or
instantaneous change, but a change that took centuries and centuries to occur. Not only has the
definition of the word changed but the nature of the word has been altered overtime as well. It has
become more popular to use “retard” as a noun rather then a verb, when 200 years ago it was the exact
opposite. The word “retard” generally means “slow” or “delayed” from the French word spelled the
same way, retard (McGraw-Hill 6-7). Mental retardation is described as decreased mental, emotion or
physical ability. “A more socially correct term is mentally disabled” (Zigler 17). Ableism affects those
with disabilities. Disabilities can be described as “1. 'any restriction or lack (resulting from an
impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range, considered normal for a
human being' (World Health Organization) 2. 'a form of social oppression resulting from a (socially
constructed) environment unsuited to the needs of impaired people' . . . In emphasizing the socially
constructed nature of, at least, part of the disadvantage and discrimination experienced by 'impaired'
people, definition 2 emphasizes the political dimensions of disability and its remedy” (Jary & Jary
157). While “retard” itself was never a medical term, it derives from the phrase “mental retardation,”
which by around 1900 was commonly used by scientists and doctors.
In 1922, the word “retard” was used in the Charlotte Sunday Observer to be defined as to
prevent or hold back. The article reads, “Even live steam…failed to retard the flames.” Though the
word was beginning to evolve, the definition of “to prevent” or “to delay” was still utilized. In the
1900s, the word “retarded” became very popular and prevalent when referring to the mentally disabled.
In 1970 in Time Magazine a sentence reads, “There are…heroin addicts, Air Force and CIA mental
retards and Broadway Indians doing a Broadway Snake Dance” (Bradley). This use of the word
“retard” was very much informal. History shows that offensive names have frequently gone from
common or slang parlance to becoming offensive to culture. Things change and these are more humane
times and people are generally more sensitive to offending others. It is impossible to speak English and
never offend anyone with a misplaced word, but some words are more hurtful than others. “Retard” is
one of those words. This word has worked it's way into our “pop culture” to mean “dumb,” “clumsy” or
“idiot.” Kidding someone by calling them “dumb,” “clumsy” or “idiot” is benign, calling them a
“retard” is malignant. In 1979 in the Observer was the first record of the word “retard” being used as
“dummy” or “idiot”. The sentence reads, “These are men who have been out of England for years on
end... Social retards, they can still hold onto their given obsolete ideas and prejudices about women
because of their...