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How late it was, how late

Among psychologists, the term “mental retardation” is being replaced by “intellectual disability”. In the Washington Post, Christopher M. Fairman points out:

The term “mentally retarded” was itself introduced by the medical establishment in the 20th century to supplant other terms that had been deemed offensive. […] The irony is that the use of “mental retardation” and its variants was originally an attempt to convey greater dignity and respect than previous labels had. While the verb “retard” — meaning to delay or hinder — has roots in the 15th century, its use in reference to mental development didn’t occur until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when medical texts began to describe children with “retarded mental development,” “retarded children” and “mentally retarded patients.” By the 1960s, “mental retardation” became the preferred medical term, gradually replacing previous diagnostic standards such as “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron” — terms that had come to carry pejorative connotations.

Intellectual disability, then, seems to be merely the latest on — well, it is not a euphemism treadmill (as per body bagstransfer tubeshuman remains pouches), but rather an anti-dysphemism treadmill, or perhaps a sensitivity treadmill.

Nonetheless Fairman argues — correctly, in my view — against the banning of the word retard and its cognates. Someone who uses it lazily as an insult perhaps invites a righteous warm rain of contumely, but such boorish or unthinking use of language ought not to attract legal sanctions.

What of the practise of inventing new insults by adding different prefixes to –tard, such as freetard (one who thinks the creative works of others ought to be free for him), or Avatard (one who likes James Cameron’s latest movie too much)? Do such usages inevitably carry a taint of the insult that is now perceived in retard, or do they get a pass on the grounds of creativity and humour?

  1. 1  sw  February 23, 2010, 4:22 pm 

    Do such usages inevitably carry a taint of the insult that is now perceived in retard, or do they get a pass on the grounds of creativity and humour?

    Yes and yes.

  2. 2  Steven  February 23, 2010, 4:57 pm 


  3. 3  Steven  February 23, 2010, 5:04 pm 

    (Furthermore, I expect you indulge in an irrational worship of French cheeses. Brietard.)

  4. 4  democracy_grenade  February 23, 2010, 5:12 pm 

    The best thing about the word is that it allows English children learning French to gain an inordinate amount of amusement from the expression “je suis en retard.” For that alone, it surely must stay.

  5. 5  dsquared  February 23, 2010, 6:29 pm 

    I’ve always been concerned about “retarded” simply because it imports a scientific theory about mental disability (that it is a slowing down or stopping of normal development) into the name of the thing. It would be like if economists always referred to a tax deficit as “an overspending” or “undertaxation”. But I thought that this one was abandoned in the 70s, wasn’t it?

  6. 6  shadowfirebird  February 23, 2010, 7:01 pm 

    Did “moron” have respectable usage in the 60’s? I rather thought that the origin of the word was in eugenics, which was hardly in favour even in the 40’s, given WW2…

  7. 7  sw  February 23, 2010, 7:14 pm 

    I want to play more of the -tard game (which makes me something of a gametard or a metootard?). You know those idiots who confess to crimes they didn’t commit because they were fooled by the police? Pleatards. And what about people who think Captain Apollo rocks? Leetards. Anybody can write a book about language and meaning, and join the legion dictionarytards. As for me, I’ve become a bit of a racist and xenophobe, a Melanietard.

    dsquared @5: I know you’re only expressing your concern, but do you think that it is a bad idea to import a scientific theory about mental disability into the name of the thing? Do you think that we should import theological theories (Cretin) or moral-political theories (Undesirables) or social theories (as in your own “mental disability”)? Or should we just make up new words for the category? And if we did choose a new word that did not appear to draw upon any sort of scientific, theological, moral-political, or social theory, how soon do you think the word would come to take on scientific, moral-political, and social meanings (and maybe even theological ones? After all, if there is a current Eltonian theory that Jesus was gay, maybe we might consider alternatives, like Jesus was retarded – a Saviourtard?)

  8. 8  redpesto  February 23, 2010, 7:28 pm 

    Re. French: there is the term ‘soixante-huitard’ (annoying baby-boomer re. ‘the events’ of May ’68) and ‘cumulard’ (my guess: analogous to ‘the great and the good’ that appear on numerous committees and boards).

  9. 9  redpesto  February 23, 2010, 7:33 pm 

    maybe we might consider alternatives, like Jesus was retarded – a Saviourtard?)

    Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man: time-traveller with religious fixation ends up in the Holy Land only to discover Jesus is ‘intellectually disabled’…yet the people need a Messiah…

  10. 10  Steven  February 23, 2010, 7:47 pm 

    I love the notion that soixante-huitard is somehow related to retard.

    Re: importing scientific theories into the scientific names for things. IANAHOS but this is something of a norm (not the norm but something of one), isn’t it? Eg “gravity” — oh, it’s the thing/stuff/force/field/whatever responsible specifically for giving objects gravity-as-in-weight. Etc. And in medicine specifically, the name for a disease is often pretty much a description of the theorized cause of the symptoms — hypertension, bronchitis, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, etc.

  11. 11  Jasper Milvain  February 23, 2010, 10:33 pm 

    The -tard suffix derives some useful ambiguity from the chance that it’s been divorced from bas-, rather than re-. Although the second option is also insensitive, I suppose, to those struggling with the stigma of illegitimacy.

  12. 12  dsquared  March 5, 2010, 12:07 am 

    I would be entirely up for reviving the defunct term “Cretin” for people whose commitment to Christianity reaches the level of an apparent mental handicap. Stephen Green of Christian Voice or some such.

  13. 13  Alex  March 5, 2010, 4:35 pm 

    The Airbus A320’s control system makes an announcement immediately before the wheels make contact with the runway (at a preset radio altimeter reading, I think) to remind the pilot to reduce the engine power settings to idle. Having been designed by Frenchmen, the announcement is “RETARD…RETARD”. Anglospheric hilarity ensued and continued to the point of tedium, and beyond.

    I’ve always liked cumulard; the Iris Robinson story really showed that the English language is missing a direct translation (she is or was a local councillor, an assembly member, and an MP, while her husband was both an assembly member and of course first minister – five public salaries in one couple!)

  14. 14  Matt  March 8, 2010, 5:34 pm 

    Purely for the record and without endorsing it: fucktard is a term that was in common use in my peer group (emotionally retarded grown men) and still makes an occasional appearance. I’m unaware of its provenance.

    I am also quite sure that “emotionally retarded” is acceptable in polite society and often used to refer to males, particularly in the computer industry. It might be the last and only surviving epithet in the -tard genus.

  15. 15  dsquared  March 9, 2010, 11:52 am 

    Along the lines of my #5, isn’t “emotionally retarded” just meaning that males in the computer industry have failed to progress emotionally from some pre-adult developmental stage? ie, I don’t think it’s necessarily of the genus “tard”.

  16. 16  Matt  March 9, 2010, 12:42 pm 

    dsquared, I stand corrected. “emotionally retarded” is its own thing.

    Worth mentioning, however, that “tard” itself has passed from being merely a suffix to being a word in its own right. I’ve most often encountered it in apologies, e.g. “Sorry about that, I was being a ‘tard”. Hence not a term of abuse but of self-deprecation…

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