The fifth annual “day of awareness” was held recently, in a national campaign to stop the use of the word “retarded” and its variants. As a medical label for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the R-word used to be neutral, clinical, incapable of giving offense. But words are mere vessels for meaning, and this one has long since been put to other uses.
I find this debate utterly fascinating.
I don’t have strong feelings about the word “retarded” one way or the other. A lot of people have said, “Hey, please don’t use that word just willy-nilly; we find it insulting.” And my response is, “Okie dokie!” Same thing with “midget”, which the Little Peoples’ Association has very politely asked that we avoid using to describe people of short stature. No problem; have a nice day.
What’s fascinating about the word “retarded” is not clearly stated in the article, and it is this: the word “retarded” has been retired from clinical applications. As of this May, when the 5th editon of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V) comes out, people will no longer be diagnosed with “mental retardation”. There has been a debate over what term will be used instead: “intellectual disability” or “intellectual developmental disorder” are the contenders. But either way, nobody is “retarded”.
Technically, there are other legitimate uses for the word: one might say that one’s profits had been retarded by the budget debated. Except one wouldn’t, would one? English having one of the largest vocabularies in the world (oo-er!) and “retarded” being the charged little number that it is, one would be much more likely to steer clear. It’s still scientifically valid to talk about “retarded growth”, I think, but the word “growth” has to be in or around there: it is most definitely a compound.
And of course, calling people “retarded,” whether they have a disability or not, is simply not ok. As many organizations for the disabled have argued, using it as an insult perpetuates the common representation of intellectual disability as pathetic or repellant.
So… the word “retarded” has no official medical use. And it has largely moved out of use in other fields because of its now-taboo common usages.
And here’s the question:
How is a word forcibly removed from a language?
Some words just fall out of usage because they are ridiculous. Thee and thou? Yeah, people just started feeling like goobers saying thee and thou, so they stopped. (Yes, yes, I know it’s more complicated than that. Shut up: my blog, my rules.) But when a word becomes, quite suddenly, meaningless?
It happened in my area in the late 80s/early 90s, with certain uses of the word “rubber.” When AIDS education picked up, the word became “condom”. Now, before that, any other uses of the word “rubber” had become too charged to bother with. Tell someone you’re putting on your rubbers (galoshes) or use the word in reference to a flat, pink eraser and you’d earn yourself a nice chorus of Beavis and Butthead: “Heh… heh heh… she said ‘rubber’!”
Just as with “retarded,” “rubber” persisted in compound uses: “rubber tree,” “rubber boots” (rain boots, aka gum boots), “rubber band,” etc. But in common parlance, “rubber” came to mean ONLY condom. Until people started saying “condom” ONLY — and then what? Well, then did “rubber” join the shoddy, haggard company of the Pariah Words that roam the earth. And that is never good:
“I am a Word. Hath not a Word letters? Hath not a Word vowels,
consonants, syllables, pronunciations; spoken with the same
mouths, written with the same pens, subject to the same grammatical rules,
bludgeoned by the same accents as any other Word is? If you misspell us, do we not grate? If
you capitalize us, do we not YELL? If you reframe us in a negative connotation, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that.”
What does revenge look like for a word? It’s not pretty, I’ll tell you that: language is tenacious. I’m not saying we should be using a word that people find insulting. I’m just saying don’t be too surprised the next time you mean to text “bug spray” and it mysteriously autocorrects to “buggery.”