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An Analysis of Past, Current, and

Future Usage

Alexandra Ward
WRA 370
In looking through many sources across the Internet, from dictionaries to newspaper

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articles, I have come to the realization that there are words in the English language that will

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Comment [1]: You seem to only mention
yourself once in the paper. To keep a
consistent tone of voice, mention yourself
throughout the paper or remove it all

never be free of their stigmatized definitions, one of which is the word retard. Having origins
in both the Latin and French languages as a verb meaning, to slow, 1it did not reach its current
association as a way to describe someone with a disability, most often mental disability, until the

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late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. Prior to the publication of the word retardation as

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medical terminology for mental disability, the word retarder was used in middle English as a

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noun, which directly mirrored the definition of its Latin roots, meaning thing that slows.

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Deleted: Websters

Merriam Websters Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003. Also
available at

The word retard was not associated with mental disability until the late-eighteenth
century, when mental illness was at the forefront of medical speculation. As mental illness
became considered a medical condition, whereas prior to 1895 symptoms of mental illness were
attributed to the work of demons and viewed as being contagious conditions, the term mental
retardation, used as a way to describe those afflicted with mental illness, appeared in medical
journals. Up until the 1970s, when activists began their fight for the equal opportunity of

Katie Susko 11/11/14 3:20 PM

Comment [2]: Consider breaking this up
into separate sentences. It is technically
not grammatically incorrect, however, I did
have to read over it a few times to
understand the layers of information that
you provide.

mentally disabled people to participate in a public educational setting, the word retarded was
used for almost a century as a strictly medical term for those suffering from mental illness.
In the politically-charged fight for equal right to education for the mentally retarded,
(which, up until this point remained the politically correct way of referring to people afflicted
with mental illness/disability,) the word retarded itself became a symbol of the stigma placed
on those labeled as such, and henceforth ostracized them from society. The word became
associated with the interventions that today would be considered unnecessary if not cruel that
took place as medical treatment, and the eugenics movement, which believed
feeblemindedness (and mental retardation) to be heritable and sought to prevent childbearing
among those diagnosed through forced segregation and sterilization.2 It is at this point in history
that the use of the word retard becomes a social taboo tied to a historical social stigma placed

Katie Susko 11/12/14 3:40 PM

Comment [3]: This sentence may sound
a bit confusing to the reader because of all
the layers of information. Either split the
sentence into two, or consider rewording
it to something like this: The word became
associated with the "interventions that
today would be considered unnecessary if
not cruel" that took place as medical
treatment. The word also became
associated with the eugenics movement,
which "believed 'feeblemindedness' (and
mental retardation) to be heritable and
sought to prevent childbearing among
those diagnosed through forced
segregation and sterilization."
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Deleted: use of the
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Comment [4]: You used these exact
words in your previous sentence. Try
synonyms such as "connotes" or

on mental illness.
In todays usage, the word retard brings about a number of interpretations, emotional

emotion because of the use of the word retard as a derogatory term. By medical definition, a

Katie Susko 11/11/14 4:17 PM

Comment [5]: IQ is listed as a noun in
the Merriam-Webster dictionary, not as an
abbreviation, so you don't have to mention
what its letters stand for.

person can be classified as retarded if he or she does not have an IQ (intelligence quotient)

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responses, and political connotations. Generally, the word brings about a strong negative

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Pallab Maulik and Catherine Harbour, Epidemiology of Intellectual Disability, International

Encyclopedia of Rehabilitation. Also available at

over 70. A person is assigned their IQ score based on their answers on a standardized test of
intelligence developed in 1904 by a French psychologist Alfred Binet. The test focuses on
questions regarding practical matters such as attention, memory, and problem-solving.3
Interestingly enough, the category of being retarded was also subdivided in medical terms up
until about 1960; these subdivisions included the words idiot, moron, and imbecile. These words
found their way into common usage as derogatory or insulting terms to replace the word
stupid, but have since diminished in shock value in their common usages through media and
everyday speech since their disappearance in medical terminology.
Though the emotional response has diminished in response to words like idiot, moron,
and imbecile in everyday language, the response to the use of retard in language is still highly
emotionally charged and controversial. The response is so widely spread, in fact, that President

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Deleted: widely-spread

Obama passed a law called Rosas Law, in 2010, ensuring that the federal government
changed their vocabulary in texts and speeches from mental retardation to intellectual
disability.4 The confines of political-correctness are applied to the word in most cases of
common usage, which makes the most recognized definition as being an incorrect replacement
for the words stupid, dumb, or idiot. According to Urban Dictionary, which defines terms
by their most common usage, the number one definition for the word retard is a rude or
offensive term for mentally disabled people or those with learning or social disabilities.5 While
the most common definition is still directly linked to identifying intellectually disabled people,
the second definition, and the most common usage found across social media platforms such as

Thomas Hally, A Brief History of IQ Tests,, accessed September 11, 2014,
U.S. Congress, One Hundred Eleventh Congress of the United States of America: Second Session
Rosas Law, accessed September 11, 2014,
Definition of Retard,, June 29 2003,

Twitter, use the word retard, or its adjective form retarded, to describe a person doing
something stupid, crazy, or silly. It is for this reason that the term has become offensive, for
this transitively conveys that the general public views people with intellectual disabilities as
being stupid, crazy, or silly.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there is a distinction between the top two
definitions mentioned by the Urban Dictionary. The dated or offensive definition is, less

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advanced in mental, physical, or social development than is usual for ones age, and the

informal, offensive definition is, very foolish or stupid. This suggests that the common, or

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most modern usage of the word, has simply replaced, or become synonymous with the words
foolish and stupid, while the more dated use of the word is the one that suggests offense
toward those with intellectual disabilities. This is the definition that is most conducive to
describing the usage of the word in todays social media outlets. Even a simple Google search of
the Twitter tag #retard7 brings you to a continuously ongoing site full of pictures, GIFs, and brief
posts about the stupid, crazy, or silly things that Twitter users are doing, seeing, and

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experiencing. While the word is clearly defined as being politically incorrect (as publicly and

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officially deemed so by President Obama with the passing of Rosas Law), and most often

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inappropriate in public forums, it seems to remain an acceptable term for social media usage,

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perhaps one of the most public spaces possible. With the removal of the word as medical
terminology in publications such as medical journals and government documents, perhaps the
word will eventually shed its stigma of being directly associated with the classifying people with
disabilities and take on an entirely new meaning.

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. 20 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Also available at
#retard,, accessed September 11, 2014,


In one case, this new definition has already been formed. In the hip hop context, as
described in an article from St. Cloud University8, the word retarded is used to describe
something, as Urban Dictionary defines it, the state of being high, or something that is cool,
dope, tight, chill, etc.9 This new definition does not either refer to a mentally disabled person or
replace the word stupid, which may be a step in the right direction for making it an acceptable, if
not very respected, use of the word. As Christopher Fairman pointed out in his article, The Case
Against Banning the Word Retard, Words themselves are not the culprit; the meaning we
attach to them is, and such meanings change dramatically over time and across communities.10
Moving forward as a society, it is imperative that we each are responsible for considering the
associations and sensitivities that those around us may have to the word, and adjusting our usage
accordingly. With this outlook, it is possible that the intellectually disabled can be completely
free of, and even embrace, the ugly words that have historically been used to degrade them.

Brandy Johanson-Sebera and Julia Wilkins, The Uses and Implications of the Word Retarded on
YouTube,, accessed September 12, 2014,
Definition of Retarded,, January 11, 2005,
Christopher Fairman, The Case Against Banning the Word Retard, Washington Post, February 14,
2010. Also available at


Katie Susko 11/11/14 4:47 PM

Comment [6]: Although this is very
interesting information, it seems a little
removed from the rest of the paper
because of its short length. Consider
mentioning it more briefly so that it doesn't
seem like you neglected a major topic in
your paper.