Some thoughts on the R-word

The comments thread on Russell’s great post brought up the tendency among kids to still say, “That’s so gay.” Which reminds me of something similar, i.e. “That’s so retarded.” Or “retard.” Or “short bus,” or whatever.

The campaign to stop using the word “retarded” is a major rallying cry among advocates for the disabled. I can’t check facebook without seeing some exhortation to “spread the word to end the word.” (I’m friends with a lot of disability advocates.)

I bristle a bit when I hear people say, “That’s so retarded.” I do, however, think it is something of a dead metaphor. People usually don’t actually have in mind an image of an intellectually and developmentally disabled (I/DD) person when they say it. I was kind of shocked when a nurse at my kid’s doctor’s office said, “Oh God, I’m so retarded” after she had led my son (the one with I/DD) and me to the wrong room. She is always absolutely lovely to him, and I’m sure would never mean to insult him. The fact that she said it in front of him indicates to me how little she has a picture of an actual person with I/DD in her mind when she uses the word. So while I think people ought to strive not to say it as a mark of respect, I understand that usage can be reasonably innocuous.

I tend to think phrases such as “retard,” (as opposed to retarded) “short bus,” etc. are much less of a dead metaphor and are very insulting.

I don’t really have a problem, as so many disability advocates do, with using “mental retardation” or “retarded” as a descriptive term, as long as it’s clearly not a pejorative. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First of all, some people really don’t understand what’s going on with my son unless I use that word. If I say he’s developmentally delayed, they respond, “Oh, I’m sure he’ll catch up.” Which requires me to reassure them that he won’t. Awkward. Or if I say “intellectually disabled” they think it’s similar to their understanding of “learning disabled” and that he just needs a bit of extra tutoring or something.

Also, advocates tend to get very offended when doctors or school systems use the phrase “mental retardation.” I think the intent in those cases is clearly a description, and not an insult. But because of the history of use as a word as an insult, advocates wish to erase it from simply descriptive uses as well. I’m okay with that, but I’m pretty sure that if you get rid of MR and replace it with I/DD, I/DD will trickle down to the general public as an insult. When I was growing up, it was the era of “special” and “differently abled.” And that is exactly what we called each other on the playground.

Think of just how many insults are derived from words that were initially descriptive terms, often used by doctors, about the disabled: idiot, moron, imbecile, dumb, stupid, lame, lame-brain, cretin, etc. Recently, a disability advocate called out Ricky Gervais for using the word “mong” — apparently a British slang term for someone with Down syndrome. He defended himself by claiming it was a dead metaphor (although he later backed down and apologized). But I was a little disconcerted to see that the disability advocate suggested he use the word “idiot” instead.”

I worry that the focus on ending the “r-word” has become the primary issue with which disability advocacy is associated in the minds of the public. (Remember when Sarah Palin promised in her convention speech to be an advocate for people with special needs and their families? The only instance of this that I can recall is when she called out Rahm Emanuel (although not Rush Limbaugh) for using the r-word.)

And, in turn, I worry that the public has only so much attention for us, and I’d rather focus on something lobbying for something of more concrete utility. Rallying for, say, greater community inclusion might introduce everyone to people with I/DD. This would not only improve the lives of those with I/DD and the community lucky enough to get to know them. It might also be the most helpful way to reduce the tendency to use the most recent appellation we’re choosing to use as an insult.


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I’ve been struggling with a post on this for the past two months, and haven’t been able to figure out why I couldn’t get it out. Now I know I’ve been waiting for you to do it better.

    Great post, Rose.

  2. I would only like to say that the picture of the child in this post is super-cute, and if anyone happens to be in his vicinity they should give him a snuggle, possibly on behalf of his godfather.

    • Done deal :). I was going to use a pic of some random kid but I’m just so in love with that pic that I had to show him off. Pseudonym getting flimsier and flimsier!

    • I was going to say he looked angelic before I remembered that that’s the new N-word.

      He is awful darned cute, though.

      • He doesn’t even look angelic. He looks puckish. An adorable little fairy creature that we root for because while he’s clearly on the side of good, he’s not the sort of boring simplistic good that the word “angelic” implies– but is instead way more interesting (though, presumably, sometimes aggravating to the person in whose care he is entrusted).

        Which is to say, he looks like a child.

        • Yeah, he’s usually lovely, occasionally seriously annoying, occasionally a deliberate badass. Kind of like my other two.

          • Honestly, he kinda looks like a douche…

            [Hoping to God you remember our previous conversation and understand the joke here…]

  3. I agree. There needs to be a bit of a balance between advocating against the use of the word and seemingly becoming obsessed with such advocacy.

    • I would say that it’s more of a utility argument.
      That and the long view that the words we use today will inevitably take on different shades of meaning over time. I really don’t believe that technology has affected the pace of the rate of change in our language all that much, but only documents it better. On of the interesting things in the OP was that the terms in previous use: idiot, moron, imbecile, dumb, stupid, lame, lame-brain, cretin, etc.— all occurred within a relatively short period of time (historically speaking).

  4. As an advocate for people with disabilities, I am (surprisingly?) not extremely worried about ending the r-word. That could have to do with my experiences with educating people on alternative terms or my age. I find that most people just don’t know what word(s) to use. Once I introduce I/DD, people use it. Also, being 25 years old, a few years ago I frequently said “that is so retarded”. Advocating is near and dear to my heart. Would I freak out if someone used the r-word maliciously? Heck yes! Would I freak out if some uneducated kid used it to describe silly behavior? No. Just educate them.

    • Actually, my favorite totally well-meaning oops comes from people who know I have a disabled kid but are meeting him for the first time or for the first time since he was a baby. They’ll say, “oh, he’s wearing jeans, just like a regular kid!” Or something else, but jeans is a popular one. I have to bite my lip to stop from saying, “Yeah, they let them do that now. Sometimes we even let him be seen in public!”

      • I do that all the time! My friends and family might be surprised if I go ice skating or to the opera with someone I support and I say just that with great exaggeration. It is so funny to watch people think and/or say “well, duh. They are a person, just like me.”

    “You Heterosexual white male boor!
    “Please don’t say ‘boar’.”

  6. Is there a linguistic term for the process by which euphemisms acquire the same negative connotations as the words they were meant to replace and thus become offensive, leading to the development of a new euphemism?

    Euphemism drift?

  7. Thanks for bringing up the point about other words once used in medical parlance and now accepted as mainstream words (almost) completely devoid of their original meaning. When I talk to people about the word “dumb” they are often flabbergasted to learn its history. Same thing with “moron”. Which is not to say I’ve scrubbed my vocabulary of them, but I bring them up to make a point about the evolution of language. There are several generations of people who have only heard some of those words used as bland pejoratives and who have zero idea of their original context. In *some* ways, it is similar to the “N-word”, with its use becoming so ubiquitous in some communities and so verboten in others that it is entirely possible for younger people to hear it in a rap song and assume it to be a wholly acceptable term.
    None of this is intended to defend the use of such words, only to point out the general trickiness of language. How many other commons words have horrible meanings from way-back-when? Probably a lot more than any of us realize. Should we avoid the use of the word “sinister” since it is routed in the Latin word for left and gained its meaning through an assumption that left-handed people were evil? Even I would call that PC… :-p

      • And as a philosopher, I prefer “person of low utility” to “useless ivory tower dweller.”

    • I’ve been reading a lot of history of I/DD, in which people are often called idiots. The word has started to stick in my craw, although obviously no one means anything by it!

      Just thought of another one: slack-jawed.

      • Maybe we should just use fewer perjoratives. Like, in general…

    • “Travesty” is one that bugs me enough that I never use it, but I usually don’t say anything about it when others do. It comes from the very old, but still current, French word for cross-dresser, “travesti(e).”

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