Ideas

The Word

The R-word and the challenging history of words for dummies

Headless businessman with hamer instead of head

Sergey Nivens/Fotolia

Our need to call out stupidity whenever we see it — on the Internet, in the parking lot, in Congress — is eternal, and English has an astounding number of stupidity-related insults. Words such as “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” are ever popular, but what’s acceptable changes over time and according to audience. Knowing what’s OK and not OK to call an ignoramus is rarely simple.

Except in one case: We almost universally avoid using “retard” and “retarded” when referring to stupidity.

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As a verb, “retard” has a lengthy history going back to the mid-1400s, always used to describe a blockage, holding back, or slowing. The adjective “retarded” has been found in print since the 1600s. In 1909, the now-taboo word appeared in the clinical context of a pediatric journal: “Then there are the ‘backwards,’ or the retards for their years, and those subnormally endowed in respect to mental gifts . . . ”

The term “retarded” didn’t appear in the slangy, usually offensive sense until the mid-20th century. Frank Rooney’s 1954 novel “The Courts of Memory” contains an insulting use that should be familiar if not comfortable: “God, you’re simple, Dick. . . . You’ve got an I.Q. about equal to a squirrel’s. You’re retarded, do you hear me?” The Oxford English Dictionary offers an understated way of describing the current radioactivity of “retard,” “retarded,” and “retardation”: Each is “not the preferred term.”

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More recently, this insulting sense of the word spawned the suffix “-tard,” which has been working overtime as of late. A “libtard” is a stupid liberal, while a “lactard” is a (usually self-labeled) lactose-intolerant person. If you can’t consume gluten, you’re a “glutard,” at least according to people with celiac disease who find that a humorous, self-deprecating term.

Any variation of “retard” still carries a toxic feel for many. Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, said such terms used to pop up often on the online Open Dictionary, which is user-generated, much like Urban Dictionary. Sokolowski said in an e-mail, “Since it was often impossible to tell whether the coinages were meant to be hurtful or playful, our decision was to reject those submissions.”

Some might be confused by the fact that “idiot,” “moron,” “imbecile,” and “feeble-minded” are thrown around casually, while “retard” is reviled. Sokolowski thinks this has to do with ignorance of word origins: “It’s surprising to people today that words like moron once had a scientific meaning. But clearly the greater understanding of brain function and treatments for disorders have led to important changes in vocabulary, which show measurable progress in both sensitivity and accuracy. Logic and language don’t always go together, but with these words the offensiveness was clear, and so was the solution.”

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Why is “retard” treated differently from similar words? It may be that its medical and slang uses overlapped longer. Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, wrote in an e-mail: “Words like ‘moron’ and ‘imbecile,’ while originating in psychological research, quickly fell out of scholarly fashion as they got taken up in popular usage as synonyms for ‘fool.’ ‘Retarded’ took much longer before it was replaced by ‘intellectually disabled’ and so forth. So I think there was more time for ‘retarded’ to lead a double life, in both technical and lay usage, which made it more obviously offensive.”

Of course, keeping the slang lexicon r-word-free is relatively easy because there are already hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unobjectionable synonyms. As the home of the brain, the word “head” is a logical suffix of many words conveying stupidity, such as “blockhead,” “dunderhead,” “lunkhead,” “meathead,” and “pinhead,” plus the obscure “blunderhead” and “boof-head.” Dunces can be called “dummies,” “dum-dums,” or, if you prefer Teutonic slurs, “dummkopfs.” Beavis and Butthead spread words such as “dumbass” and “buttmunch.” If you’re witty, you may prefer quaint terms such as “nitwit,” “halfwit,” and “want-wit,” or the more recent but unprintable “[f-word]wit.” Old-fashioned words for idiots such as “doddypoll,” “dullard,” and “skit-brains” are ripe for a revival.

Respecting people with mental disabilities is essential, but labeling the lunkhead in the comments section is irresistible. Such descriptions require smart word choices, which is why we could all take inspiration from the late lexicographer Laurence Urdang, who once used the expression “microcephalic, nanocerebral ninnyhammer.” With marvelous language at our disposal, using the r-word is just plain dumb.

Mark Peters, the language writer for Ideas, is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.
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