I was greeted in the letters to the editor section of my morning paper the other day with a note damning the use of "retard" as a put down. The writer was responding specifically to its frequent use in a new, highly rated movie, "Tropic Thunder, a Ben Stiller movie. Of course, it couldn't be used in that way if it weren't negative. On the other hand this is a comedy and comedy and comedians have usually been given wide latitude.
Apparently disability rights groups have condemned its use, saying it is hate speech which, in the words of the writer, "heaps insult and harm on a group that has a long history of being stigmatized and vulnerable." He likens it to the use of terms like "nigger," "spic," and "slut" though he does not cite these specific words and he is right, of course.
In an utterance like "You retard" "retard" is being used as a noun, a use that isn't mentioned in the on line edition of the Merriam Webster dictionary which speaks to its marginal position in the language. Like a good deal of slang, it could someday be replaced by something else equally pejorative. In fact, it is likely to be repaced because put downs like this need a certain "freshness" for maximum effect. Use of the word "idiot" instead of "retard" would not have anything like the same import though it comes down to the same thing. "Idiot" is not fresh.
I have great sympathy for the position the writer takes but it is a hopeless cause. The problem is that the word "retardation," from which "retard" is derived, is in common use among those who study or provide assistance to those who have learning disabilities and such other conditions as the term encompasses. This puts "retardation" in a very different linguistic position than words like "nigger," "spic," and "slut." And it may cause the word to stick around for awhile. Ironically, every letter to the editor on the use of this word reminds us of its availability should one feel the need to put down another person.
If those who don't like hearing "retard" want to kill it off, they need to start with all the agencies and organizations that use "retardation" in their names. This use gives automatic legitimacy to "retardation."