Using the R Word

This post is likely to offend, so here’s a picture of two puppies to soften your mood.

Awww

Awww

I’ve been spitting feathers the last twelve hours after being pointed in the direction of this website. R-word.org seeks to end the use of a word, as in:
The R-word is the word ‘retard(ed)’. Why does it hurt? The R-word hurts because it is exclusive. It’s offensive. It’s derogatory.


Our campaign asks people to pledge to stop saying the R-word as a starting point toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people. Language affects attitudes and attitudes affect actions. Pledge today to use respectful, people-first language.

Actually, I haven’t been spitting feathers the whole time. My attitude has swung between lauding the exclusion of a hurtful word, to laughing hollowly, to getting all self-righteous and pissed-off. You see, sagacious and munificent as I am, I use the word ‘retard’. I use it quite a lot, actually.
Of course I don’t use the word ‘retarded’ to refer to people with learning disabilities. That’s where the word came from, of course, from the Latin retardāre (re + tardus, to slow) via the Anglo-French retarder. The word ‘retard’ is one of those we’ve inherited from the medical community that has since been divorced from its original meaning. Examples of this phenomenon include the fascinating bedlam (a state of disarray, anarchy or chaos), derived from a contraction of Bethlem Royal Hospital, a London institutional facility for the treatment of mental illness, lunatic (someone who behaves irrationally) from the Latin lūnāticus, someone driven insane by the light of the moon, spastic (a clumsy or inept person), derived from of,or relating to spasms, and mong, (an idiot), derived from mongoloid, the old medical term for the unique facial structure associated with Down’s Syndrome. Even the word idiot (someone of low intelligence) has a dual meaning – before the modern era it was a medical term for someone with learning disabilities, from the Greek idiōtēs – an ignoramus. How often have you used that offensive word?
Pre-modern medical science was full of such terms that have since fallen by the wayside. The terms I’ve just given you have since entered common parlance. It’s worth pointing out that very few of these terms are connected to their original meanings and they now, by and large, refer to something different. Language is tricky like that.
It’s not much of a defense for, as I do, using ‘retard’ in an offensive sense. My defense (if I felt compelled to make one) would be that I don’t, and never have, used it to refer to someone with mental health problems. It’s simply the common parlance of my time. It’s schoolyard slang.
I’m not so very old and mature that I don’t carry with me in my head a small dictionary of offensive schoolyard slang. Top of my list, and the one that gives me most cause for self-loathing, is the pejorative ‘gay’. ‘Gay’ means, as you well know, homosexual, but in late-2000s slang it means anything sub-par, inadequate, crap or otherwise subject to criticism. Example: “That party last night was so gay” = that party was sub-par. The how and why of such a term is pretty obvious. In a school environment, different is bad (a school is a perfect microcosm of the larger world). Gay (as in homosexual) is different. Therefore ‘gay’ is a negative term and had been since, well, gay was a word. Not an enlightened viewpoint, true, and grossly unfair.
What is significant is that during the time period I’m talking about, ‘gay’ had dual meaning. You’d say, for example, that a party ‘was gay’. You’d also say that a person ‘is, y’know,…gay‘. The microscopic pause, the turn in inflection – these changed the meaning of the word from a rather vulgar, if harmless, word into an actual descriptive term. My point is the terms were homonyms but not synonyms, and the former was in fact a metonym.
Metonyms give us a lot of trouble in our language. English is particularly fecund with metonyms and they cause a great deal of confusion when out of context. A bar is a place you go for a drink unless you’re a lawyer (and if you do, you’ll be disbarred, which is the same as being barred even though it’s an antonym). Grass is a thing sheep eat or stoners smoke. Suits are things you wear, unless you’re referring to the people who wear suits. And so on. Most offensive, pejorative or vulgar words are also, interestingly, metonyms. A ‘fuck’ is a transitive verb, an intransitive, an adverb, an adjective, a particulate…and so on:
I’ve wandered slightly from the point. English is a rich, diverse language that evolves constantly. To get back to my schoolyard phrasebook, when I was a young teen it was the practice for people to refer to things or themselves as ‘random’. Example: “that party was so random” = “that party was fairly interesting”. ‘Random’, being massively overused for a brief period of time, became meaningless. The nadir came when teenage girls started referring to themselves as ‘random’ in order to differentiate, as in “oh, I’m so random” = “I’m a little kooky, but not in a threatening way”. Shortly afterward the word fell out of parlance and has never been seen again. How ‘random’ evolved from meaning ‘a chaotic state’ to meaning ‘basically pedestrian’ in the course of two years or so shows how quickly words can change their meanings completely. Similarly, to get back on track for a second, the word ‘retarded’ is less and less frequently being applied to people with learning difficulties. Society has evolved and, while the same words hang around, their meanings change.
My parents, children of the fifties and sixties, might once have used phrases that today would sound offensive but once had fairly innocent meanings. Words are, as we’ve discussed previously, a currency. Their value fluctuates, rising and falling in the same way as exchange rates. Like currency rates, the value of words lies in their intangible fluxes: language is an ever-shifting landscape. Controlling it, which the well-meaning people at R-word.org are trying to do, is like Canute trying to control the tides.
Controlling a language has been attempted many times. L’Académie française, a venerable French institution, has been imposing its learned bulk on the French language since the 1620s, attempting to keep it pure and free from external influence. Although it wields no legal power, L’Académie prompts much chortling from this side of the Channel whenever it imposes one of its silly decrees on the French, such as denigrating the use of the contraction ’email’ or proposing that the Twitter ‘hashtag’ should only be referred to as the ‘mot-dièse’. As a consequence of this imposition, French as a language has been slow to pick up new terms and loan-words and, as a result, has lost considerable international ground to English, which remains free as the wind from any such influence. English maintains an edge (and is spoken in some form by 1 in 4 of the world’s inhabitants) because it adapts readily. It has a dictionary but, true to the spirit of such a book, the dictionary records the new use of words, rather than imposing definitions. English-speakers are therefore free to pick up words from other languages and change meanings as much as they like.
That’s not to say that I disagree with the aim of R-word.org. It would be nice indeed if people were not offended by the choice use of a word. It would be nicer still if people could use a word like ‘retard’ only in its non-technical sense or, better yet, use it only with discretion. It would be fine indeed if we could change our language to suit our ends. Charlie Brooker ignited my imagination some time ago when he suggested we remove the power of terrorists to frighten us by changing the official term for them:
Any budding terrorists reading this now: toss those detonators in the bin and try being man enough to change people’s minds via some other method for once. Girls will respect you. Only wankers kill people. Whether you’re a head of state or a disgruntled fanatic, the moment you get blood on your hands, you’ve become a massive wanker.


Come to think of it, that’s how the news should be reported. “Thirty people were killed today when a massive wanker blew himself up in a busy marketplace” has quite a ring to it.

Unfortunately English, as a living, adaptive language resists all attempts to pin it down. Languages that can easily be pinned down are dead, such as Latin, Gaelic or Ancient Greek. We should be thankful that our language is vibrant enough to constantly change and grow.
But trying to impose artificial controls on what words people use? That’s retarded.
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