How late it was, how late
February 23, 2010
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 bags → transfer tubes → human 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?