Thursday, August 21, 2008


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."

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Blogger Unknown said...

With the whims of slang the term retard has already gone further transformation. I seldom hear it being used. In it's place is typically the more abbreviated 'tard which also lends itself to use as a suffix to add to other words.

1:52 PM

Blogger Chimera said...

I saw the movie.

The word "retard" and the context in which it's used are all germane to the plot. Oh, and they also found a slot for "nigger." Just one little mention, but it had its planned effect. The entire audience froze...then busted a gut howling with laughter. This was, btw, an audience that was a virtual mosaic of skin colors and cultures -- a pretty close to perfect barometer for so-called racial slurs. And none of them huffed and puffed about being offended.

Of people I know who would actually have any reason to be offended for real by the term "retard," not one of them is offended.

Whence come these so-called "spokesmen," anyway? For whom, exactly, do they profess to speak? And why?

When did individuals abrogate their rights and duties to speak for themselves?

5:47 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

However, if one looks at it another standpoint, i'm sure the word, 'retard' comes from latin, in which case one of it's real meanings would be 'Slow' as in the french ''Retard'' or the spanish, 'tarde' or the italian 'ritardo'.Apart from how it is used in english, it does have different connotations elsewhere.

-A young linguist and translator living in Europe

9:06 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Nice post, Chimera. It takes a good deal of chutzpah to lecture others as to what is good taste or is morally correct etc. This guy missed the key point that while it could be acceptable to say of someone that he is retarded. How is that so different from saying he is a retard? The difference is, I think, that "retard" exists only to do harm

11:42 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I am betting, glenn, that translating is how you earn your daily bread and acting as a linguist is what you want to do. Am I right. There are, of course, a lot of linguistic interesting issues that arise in doing translation. Good luck.

11:45 PM

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3:29 PM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

Hmm. I remember being called retard on the schoolyard. It was definitely one that hurt more than average. Being called a nerd, for example, didn't hurt at all. What I'm curious about is how certain terms become so effective at offending people.

"Nigger" is just a variant of "negro," which in turn is a synonym for "black," which doesn't seem to offend anybody. But the word somehow got a really bad connotation.

"Retard" is also used as a hateful term for people that are not retarded. This goes in contrast to nigger, which, I believe, is only used as a term of endearment when applied to white people. I supposed the term offended me because it played on my own fear of the severely disabled.

7:08 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Le vent frippon, the fact that "retard" might sting is that you may have just committed a failing of some sort and so you might feel vulnerable at the time. Your enemy attacks with "retard" and you hear it as partially true even if not generally true. Nigger does insult though whether or not it does depends on the speaker. If I saw some guy at a bar and said, "You are very light skinned but the bartender said you were a nigger. What's up with that." You would soon find yourself in a fight. It continues to be offense. Blacks may use it amongst themselves but that in no way legitimizes is for use by White.

6:19 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

the fact that "retard" might sting is that you may have just committed a failing of some sort and so you might feel vulnerable at the time.

Yes, calling someone a "retard" means you are calling them stupid even if you are joking & saying it as a term of endearment & even in an intimate vulnerable context. IMO, the context, setting, etc...is as important as the word.
This makes me think of my understanding of Aristotle's four causes or what can be called ultimate explanations.

11:25 AM

Blogger spencerto said...

You say "it is likely to be repaced" in the third paragraph. I'm guessing you meant replaced. At the end of every post it is written "Posted by thr language guy at..." Thr?

11:44 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Yes, "Thr". I have thought about fixing it but that would require unproductive thought.

6:35 AM

Blogger Rita said...

Gosh! All this time I thought "Thr" was some clever play on words. A linguist joke or something. No wonder i never got it.

10:39 AM

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6:24 AM

Blogger Thee Trucker said...

It seems that every so often, a new euphemism is created for people with disabilities, because the old euphemism has become pejorative. But school children quickly turn each new term into an insult, which percolates up into the rest of society. Idiot, moron, retarded, and the rest, all began their life as clinical descriptions. It is now possible to insult someone by calling them "special", (from "special needs" and "special ed."). And so it goes....
It seems to me that people will always disparage those that are different from them, and that whatever term is used to differentiate a group, it will eventually be perceived, and applied, as an insult.

12:05 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Nice, frigaphobe. Is your name telling us you hate frigging?

6:15 PM

Blogger Thee Trucker said...

Ha! That would be a pitiable phobia, wouldn't it? I was hoping that some people would get that out of the word, but, I had "fear of jerk-offs", more in mind. Either way, good to know I'm not the only one with such a lame sense of humor!
But, the truth is, even though I grew up in Chicago, I hate leaving the house in the Winter for fear of the cold!

3:39 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I saw the "frig" and "frigid" connection but the pronunciation of the "g" is different in the two cases. I like "frigging" better.

4:29 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Let me offer a variant:


I have heard this used by teenagers. My daughter against my son. Her friend against her. Other teens against their friends and in some cases in the 3rd person:

"He/She's such a tard".

To my ear, "tard" is fresh - a nice bit of derisive slang.

From the contexts I overheard, it's used to deride poor judgement, outright stupidity, and sometimes absent-mindedness.

Mostly, it's not used with a mean-spirit - but in a teasing manner.

The 3rd person, gossip context IS mean, however.

Moreover, the teens I know are not generally mean, and I believe if one of them were to refer to an actual mentally disabled person as a "tard" there rest would disapprove.

3:08 PM


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