Using the Word Retard Loosely

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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

Balodis 2

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...
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