The Fickleness of Vocabulary; or, the Case of the R-Word

In 1974, the US Postal Service put out a stamp stating “Retarded Children Can be Helped.” The sentiment was certainly one we can relate to: the mentally impaired do not need to be marginalized. This is contrary to a long history of approaches to mental disability, which has included institutionalization and forced sterilization.

I can find no consensus as to how many people were still using the word “retarded” in a non-derogatory way in 1974. Some thought it was already out of fashion. Others saw it being used into the 90s. The American Association on Mental Retardation used it until 2006.  Garett Boos suggests it started being used derogatorily in the 1960s. (source)

Ann Coulter
Ann Coulter provides some of the most vile punditry I’ve ever heard. It’s a little embarrassing siding with her on anything. (c) Gage Skidmore

Today, however, it’s entirely an insult when directed toward a person and a politically charged insult at that. I’ve seen some go so far as to refer to it as the “r-word.

As an Aside:  Personally, I disagree with the practice of entirely eliminating any word from our vocabulary.  There are serious discussions to be had about word use and the cultural changes behind them, which become cumbersome when you have to use nicknames like the “n-word.”

Ann Coulter’s Use

A couple years ago, Ann Coulter got in hot water after tweeting that president Obama was a retard. However, the objection was not about a public figure lowering herself to playground name-calling against the President of the United States of America. Instead, the outrage was over the word retard.

As much as I hate to say it, as far as word usage goes, I have to agree with Coulter:

Where do you think the words imbecile, idiot, moron, cretin come from?” she asked. “These were all technical terms at one time. Retard has been used colloquially to just mean ‘loser’ for 30 years. (NY Daily News)

People who object to the use of the word retard equate it with using the term mentally impaired as an insult. However, as Coulter points out, there’s lots of words that formerly meant mentally impaired that are widely acceptable as insults.

Idiots, Imbiciles and Morons

Before we talked about mental impairment or intellectual disability, we talked about mental retardation, and there were various classes of retardation: idiots, imbeciles, and morons. If you went to a doctor concerning developmental issues, these are the words they would use until the mid 20th century.

A moron had a mental age of 7 to 10, or an IQ of 50 to 70. Forest Gump would have been a moron. He might also be called feeble-minded. An imbecile had a mental age of 3 to 7, or an IQ of 30 to 50, while an idiot had a mental age of no more than 3, or an IQ below 30.

Other medical terms that have fallen into colloquial derogatory use include cretin (a physical and mental impairment induced by hypothyroidism), spastic (suffering from cerebral palsy), and lunatic (suffering mental illness or epilepsy).

Colloquial Use

While originally they were used to compare the target to someone with developmental limits, today the words have become generic synonyms of stupid. No one calls me out when I call someone an idiot. However, if I call someone or something retarded, a segment of the population gets up in arms about it, insisting I am comparing the target with their disabled child.

But I’m not, just as I am not when I call something idiotic. Why do we accept one word but not the other? Why do we hang onto the history of one but not the many others of similar usage?

Logically speaking, it makes zero sense to compare my common use of retarded to the mentally challenged. Personally, I save the term for extreme stupidity, stupidity that leaves me boggled as to how anyone could possibly come to such a conclusion. In a discussion about abortion, for example, simply yelling “babies are people” over and over again is idiotic. I’m not calling the position idiotic, just the approach to the argument. (Responding repeatedly with “no they aren’t” is equally idiotic.)

However, when someone tells me legitimate rape only rarely produces pregnancy because the body “shuts the whole thing down,” that’s retarded. I cannot fathom how anyone can honestly believe that statement, as it flies in the face of everything we know about biology.

And when I say anyone, I include the mentally challenged. No mentally challenged person is going to utter those words unless someone has very specifically coached them to do so. It is quite likely they don’t even have a good grasp of things like rape and abortion, so how could they possibly formulate such a bizarre conclusion about them?

Senator Akin is absolutely not mentally challenged, and I would never call him such. That would be using a common term for a group of people today as an insult, which really is derogatory to both sides.

Other Uses of the Word

Moreover, retard is still used in other contexts. The general definition is to slow down or delay. Various chemicals retard the growth of bacteria, for example, and no one cries foul over that use of the word.

Certainly, I wouldn’t use the term around someone who objects to the term. Whether I agree or not, talking in a personally offensive manner to someone is insensitive at best. But the next time you challenge someone on their use of retard, kindly explain why you don’t object to idiot, moron, or imbecile, because they have the exact same origin and original use.


  1. Re:

    “There are serious discussions to be had about word use and the cultural changes behind them, which become cumbersome when you have to use nicknames like the ‘n-word.’ ” —

    Worse, these discussions become not just “cumbersome” but IMPOSSIBLE when one of the discussants is a non-native speaker of English who not only has never before seen or heard the phrase “the n-word,” but has never before seen or heard the word that “the n-word” tiptoes around. (This can also happen when someone is a child who has simply been raised in an absolutely Politically Correctitudinous environment, and is now hearing — for the first time — somebody stating that someone else had actually gone so far as to say “the n-word.”)
    The person who is new to “the n-word” will want to know “What’s an enword?” — AND NOBODY PRESENT CAN ANSWER without breaking the taboo that required the creation of this substitute.

  2. 1974 stamp retarded children can be helped I am the little girl on that stamp my name is Lena bull and the money that we made want to help the children about handicapped I was 8 years old when I was put on the stamp and 1974

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