The Etymology of Slurs

When someone’s in a hurry to get somewhere and they spill their breakfast on their favorite work shirt or they accidentally lock themselves out of their apartment or their car has a flat, you know what that is? Frustrating. Anger-inducing. Just generally unfortunate. But never “retarded.”

Despite having a brother who has a developmental disability, I regularly abused the word “retard” for a number of years. It wasn’t until I reached high school and my dad started cracking down on mine and my siblings’ language that I got a clue–why it took me so long, I don’t know, but I’ll chalk it up to personal insensitivity and being steeped in a society where non-African American people will genuinely argue for their right to say the n-word and where adolescents toss around the word “gay” like it’s a physiological effect of puberty.

I recently discovered that, like the people who think rape jokes are funny, or people who believe it’s their inalienable right to point out that a person (usually a woman) differs from our society’s highly unattainable standards of thinness, the people who use ableist slurs like “retard” or “psycho” or “gimp” don’t take criticism well. They don’t like to hear that their language is hurtful (or contemplate the corollary: they, individually, are responsible for causing hurt), so they tirelessly defend themselves, logic be damned.

In my most recent dust-up with one of these folks, I heard an unprecedented number of justifications for using the word “retard,” and while most were laughably weak, a few challenged me enough to outline the counter-arguments that show those excuses up for the foolish, blame-dodging inanities they are.

1. “It’s a regional thing.”

We can dispense with this flim-flam real fucking fast. I almost have to admire the intense mental gymnastics that must have gone into declaring “retard” an innocent fixture of local dialect (in Boston, no less–as if the citizens of Boston are so isolated from the rest of the world that they haven’t evolved the ability to Google yet).

Dialect is regionally specific. A word cannot possibly be considered part of a regional dialect if it is a) commonly used throughout the rest of the country and b) has the same meaning (in the case of “retard,” a pejorative catch-all) everywhere.

Examples of true Bostonian dialect: “Budge”: while this might mean to move from one’s spot or seat in most parts of America, in Boston it means to steal. “Jimmies”: the all-chocolate version of sprinkles (and I’m not sure if this one entirely belongs to Boston because I’ve heard it in other parts of the Northeast U.S.).

So regarding the claim that “retard” is regional slang that has no connection to people with mental disabilities: in a word, no.

2. Words have no meaning–they’re just syllables and letters, so they can’t hurt anyone.

I hate all of these arguments, but I might hate this one most of all, because it’s a faux-intelligent chess move your opponent will make before leaning back, crossing his arms triumphantly, smarmily grinning and assuming he’s bested you.

Then when you calmly respond with your knight and check-mate him, he argues that you’re cheating and tries to take back his move. Fuckin’ chess players.

Anyway, it’s true that if you follow the logical rabbit hole all the way down, words are just sound (and sometimes fury) with pictorial representations attached. But of course, that’s not all words are, because every language has adapted certain sounds to mean certain things, and barring a Tower-of-Babel-esque catastrophe, we cling to those meanings as our primary method of communication.

Sure, you could be raised in the wilderness, on a desert island, or on a commune, where you could be taught that the word “vagina” means ladybug, and that meaning would be perfectly appropriate, in that context, if that was what every member of the commune truly believed and accepted as fact, but were you to ever leave the commune, you’d find out very quickly that “vagina” means something else entirely.

For the most part, we are bound to the dictionary or colloquial definitions of words, because meaning is not ascribed by a single user twisting language to suit their own devices; it’s ascribed by a community that uses words as shared tools.

3. The colloquial meaning of the word has changed enough that it’s no longer a slur.

I beg to differ so hard I might just explode into a starburst pattern of neon-colored rage.

I actually think there is a legitimate discussion that can be had about the current status of some commonly-used words. For example, “lame”– the primary definition of which (according to Webster’s), is “having a body part and especially a limb so disabled as to impair freedom of movement.” Then there are three subsequent definitions: “lacking needful or desirable substance,” “not being in the know,” and “inferior/contemptible, nasty.”

It’s not unreasonable to argue that the widespread slang definition of “lame” has evolved in alignment with definitions two through four, or that it is far enough removed from the original, clinical definition, not only in usage but in popular thought, as to be rendered inoffensive.*

There’s some etymological meat to dig into in regards to “lame” and certain other derogatory words, but the same cannot be said for “retard” or “retarded.” For starters, Webster’s only has two definitions for the word “retard[ed]”–the primary definition is a person “slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress.” The secondary definition means to slow down progress (as in “retard the flow of the stream”).

“Retard” is still listed as a clinical diagnosis in the DSM-IV, though many doctors are moving away from the word because of its increasingly negative connotations. Particularly because it’s still used in reference to people with intellectual disabilities, the bastardization of the word derives its hurtfulness from tying those people to a vague sense of being undesirable, lesser-than, unwanted.

While usage of “lame” pre-dates the 12th century, the adjective “retarded” is much younger; it did not enter the vernacular until 1895. While there is the possibility that, decades or centuries from now, “retarded” will come to be entirely disassociated from people with mental disabilities, that is simply not the case today.

Anyone who wants to argue that people who use “retard” or “retarded” as slang without associating the word with mental disabilities ought to Google it, along with a separate search for “lame.” “Lame” will turn up a variety of pictures, none of which (for the first ten pages I checked) have anything to do with unusable limbs. “Retard,” however, will immediately bring up dozens of pictures of people with Down’s Syndrome or people whose appearance might mark them, to bullies anyway, as having a mental disability. If “retard” is still being used to taunt those with a disability or even a perceived disability, it has not evolved passed slur status.

4. By avoiding the word, you’re just giving it power over you. You’re scared to use it.

Fear has nothing to do with why we avoid pejorative terms. We do so out of respect for the people who have been hurt by them,  who would prefer not to be synonymous with negativity. My brother heartily dislikes the word “retard” and is offended when people use it in his presence. He’s not the only one–the Special Olympics has started a campaign called “Spread the Word to End the Word” that specifically seeks to educate people about the hurtful meaning and connotation of “retard.”

If those who actually have intellectual disabilities want to reappropriate the word, then they are free to do so–but they are the only people who can make that decision, just as members of the GLBT community were the only ones who could decide to reappropriate “queer,” and African-American people are the only ones who can reappropriate the n-word. It has to be on their terms, not the terms of some slacker who wants to get away with failing to take the 2.5 seconds it requires to think of another word and lend some gravity to the feelings of others.

To those of you who read this entire post (or skimmed relevant parts): thank you. This has been an issue that’s irked me for years now, and I’m glad I have a venue to write about it. Feel free to share your experiences with slurs and/or your thoughts about how certain offensive words have evolved.

*Once I made the connection between “lame” and ableism, which was fairly recently, I began working to expunge it from my vocabulary. It’s arguably a grey area, but I’d rather err on the side of decency than the side of offensiveness.

7 replies on “The Etymology of Slurs”

I am monitoring myself, and still use abelist language, such as insane and crazy even though I suffer from mental illness. Those two words don’t seem as bad because they can have positive meanings.

And yet better that I stretch my brain cells and use more original language.

People who refuse to change their language are so blind to their privilege and ignorance.

I watch myself with “crazy” and “insane,” though it’s interesting and very true that they can have positive meanings. I didn’t do much research on those words in particular, but I’m pretty sure they are fairly old. It does seem the older words get, the more removed from their original sources they can become, though that doesn’t necessarily give people outside the community affected by the words carte blanche to use them.

Words are tricky, which is why I try to err on the side of not-hurtful. But it’s still a struggle, because words like “lame” and “crazy” had been so integrated in my daily speech.

When I was a kid and got to the age where we could use the word retarded, I remember knowing exactly what it meant and saying it anyway. (In the 80’s, before mainstreaming, there was a “retarded school” in my city. We all knew what it meant. True story.) It was a word kids could say without any consequences, I don’t remember being reprimanded once. It wasn’t until college, and I took some special education classes that I began to realize it wasn’t ok to say. I started catching myself when I would start to say it. You know I really meant to say? I meant to say “dumb” or “stupid”. So now I say those words instead.

I have to admit I knew what I was doing too. And I imagine the vast majority of people who say “retarded” or call people “special ed” (as an insult), know what they’re saying, but it just seems acceptable because so many people, even adults, toss those words around like they don’t mean anything hurtful.

You touched on it at the end, but what really irks me is the “They use the word all the time, that means it’s ok for me to use it” argument. It’s a double standard, but it’s one that everyone just has to get used to. I use the “fat” example with people who continue to argue. I can call myself fat all day long, but if anyone else were to call me fat I would either cry or punch them in the teeth, possibly both, and no one thinks that’s strange. The same applies to words like “gay” or “retarded.”
Grrrr… There’s about a million other things about this subject that piss me off, but I will stop here lest my comment end up longer than the post.

YES, I could not agree more. And I feel like that is such a simple concept to grasp: privileged people do not have the same right to derogatory, offensive language that people who have been directly affected by the language do. Cut-and-dried.

But do please continue to rant if you want to; I love reading rants.

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