Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Transformation of the Word "Retard"

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first record of the usage of the word "retard" is from circa 1489. At that point in time, that word meant to keep back, hinder, or impede. Now, in 2008, the word "retard" is used in common vernacular as a replacement for the word "idiot" or "dummy". This was not a direct or instantaneous change, but a change that took centuries and centuries to occur. Not only has the definition of the word changed but the nature of word has been altered over time as well. It has become more popular to use “retard” as a noun rather than a verb, when 200 years ago it was the exact opposite. Also, the pronunciation of the word has been modified over time because of its added meaning. Why and how has the word changed so greatly?


Well, the word “retard” was first found printed in American newspapers in 1704. It was used to describe the slowing down or the diminishing of something. The 1704 article from the Boston News Letter reads “…but the Precarious Title of the present King of Spain is likely to retard the fame.” After reading that sentence in context, I found the word “retard” to mean slow down or diminish. That word was used numerous times in newspapers in the 1700s. In 1720, in the American Weekly Mercury, the word “retard” was defined as creating some sort of hindrance. The article reads “In order to remove all obstacles, which may in the least retard what is so conducive…” Again, after reading that line in context, it seems that “retard” is supposed to be defined as “to hinder”. One major change that occurred in the 1700s was the addition of the word “retard” as a noun as well as a verb. The definition of the word was now “delay”. Though the definition did not change radically, the usage of the word could be broadened and more abundantly used in other grammatical situations. Throughout the articles from the 1700s containing the word “retard”, the definition in context remained relatively constant. There was no great alteration to the significance of the word until many years later.


In The Courier in 1800, an article was produced using the word “retard” as a replacement to describe the process of slowing down. This usage was very similar to many of the usages in the 1700s. Obviously over these years, the language did not evolve so greatly. In 1849, in The Georgia Telegraph, the word “retard” is used like the word “prevent”. It says, “Nothing can prevent or ever retard these results”. In that sentence itself, it describes “retard” as to prevent. In 1895, the first major change to the definition in context of the word occurred. Though the definition is not wildly different, the definition in context took quite a turn. In G. E. Shuttleworth’s Mentally-Deficient Children, he uses the word “retarded” to describe a mentally handicapped person. The sentence reads, “Such children are also described as ‘backward’, or of ‘retarded mental development’.” This is the first time the word “retard” or “retarded” had been used related to a mental deficiency.


In 1922, the word “retard” is used in the Charlotte Sunday Observer to be defined as to prevent or hold back. The article reads, “Even live steam…failed to retard the flames.” Though the word was beginning to evolve, the definition of “to prevent” or “to delay” was still utilized. In the 1900s, the word “retarded” became very popular and prevalent when referring to the mentally disabled. Not only was it a medical term but it became slang for someone who is mentally disabled. In 1970 in Time Magazine a sentence reads, “There are…heroin addicts, Air Force and CIA mental retards and Broadway Indians doing a Broadway Snake Dance.” This use of the word “retard” is very much informal and almost slang. In 1971 an article in The New Yorker reads, “The younger son, self-described as ‘a hard-core retard’, dreams of escaping to the wilds of Oregon to gambol with the bears and squirrels.” Again, though referring to someone who is mentally handicapped, the word “retarded” is simply shortened to “retard” to become quicker and somewhat slang. In 1979 in the Observer is the first record of the word “retard” being used as “dummy” or “idiot”. The sentence reads, “These are men who have been out of England for years on end... Social retards, they can still hold onto their given obsolete ideas and prejudices about women because of their geographical isolation, and their marooned intellects.” The men referred to are not actually mentally retarded, they are just dumb, socially speaking. This definition became very popular in the later 1900s and early 2000s.


Now, one could hear the word “retard” used as an insult to someone by using it to call them “dumb” or “ignorant”. While insulting the one being named, is that not also insulting actual retards? Is that not so very rude to those who actually are mentally handicapped? If I were mentally handicapped, I would not appreciate the word “retard” being paralleled with the word “dumb”. Just like I do not like the word “blonde” associated with the word “dumb”. Although some mentally handicapped people do not understand this association, many do. So basically, in stead of calling that person mentally handicapped, it would be okay to call them mentally idiotic? I think not. I do not think anyone likes a word that describes themselves also describing something derogatory and negative. Many people have close relatives that are mentally handicapped that also take serious offense to this connotation. “You’ll never hear me callin’ anyone a retard,” said my high school Economics teacher. His daughter is mentally handicapped. “I just can’t stand it when people replace the word “dumb” with something like “retarded”. My daughter is actually very intelligent though she may be a little different than you or me.”


I believe the best definition for the word “retard” is to delay or slow down. I also think using “retarded” to describe a mentally handicapped person is legitimate also. However, when used as an insult in a derogatory manner, I believe the word “retard” is very inappropriate and should be more carefully looked upon. So next time you are thinking about calling someone a “retard”, think about all the people you could be hurting or insulting.







“Retard.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.NewsBank/Readex. The Boston Newsletter. Editorial. America's Historical Newspapers. 26 May 1704. 11th ed. Boston, Massachusetts.
NewsBank/Readex. American Weekly Mercury. Editorial. America’s Historical
Newspapers. 7 April 1720. 16th ed. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
NewsBank/Readex. The Courier. Editorial. America’s Historical Newspapers. 4 May
1800. 12th ed. Norwich, Connecticut.
The Georgia Telegraph. Editorial. America’s Historical Newspapers. 5 April 1849. 29th
ed. Macon, Georgia.
Charlotte Sunday Observer. America’s Historical Newspapers. 17 June 1922. 20th ed.
Charlotte, North Carolina.
Bradley, Mark. Personal Quotation. 20 September 2008.

15 comments:

CMYelleK said...

I find the transformation of the word retard to be interesting. It is similar to that of the word gay, which is the subject of my paper. In both cases, a word used to describe a group of people changes to mean something derogatory, both of which could be offensive to the group with which it was originally associated. I say all of that in order to say this; it seems that your argument regarding how mentally retarded individuals may be offended may be a little fuzzy. While I understood what you were getting at (because I had to make the same argument in my paper), you may want to consider revising it in order to more clearly convey your point. Additionally, when you talk about "the definition in context" changing, it was unclear what you meant. After rereading it, I realized what it meant, but you might want to be more explicit in communicating your message. You could say, for instance, that while retarded still meant to slow down, it was used in reference to a different subject and therefore had completely different implication. You also may want to consider including your thesis earlier in the paper. While I can appreciate a delayed thesis, your paper looks more like a report than a persuasive paper. All in all, I think you have good ideas and reasons, it just needs to be a little clearer.

KK said...

Your essay was very engaging. I appreciate the plenty of quotes you used to back up your argument. It contributed to the overall clarity of your paper. I never really realized how the word retard has been twisted so greatly from its original meaning. The uniqueness of the word you chose led me to actually want to read your paper. I do however think that you should possibly find a new opening sentence. The one you currently have is sort of bland and history classish. An eye grabber sentence would really contribute to your opening paragraph. The quote you used from your teacher was very appropriate. It made your argument of how “retard” is a derogatory and offensive term so much stronger. There was only one awkward sentence I found. In the 2nd sentence of the last paragraph you used “also” twice. You can easily change one of them to “In addition” or “as well.” The overall layout of your paper was organized and interesting.

louis smith said...

I find your essay to be well organized. It started well with the history of the word and how it transformed throughout the centures in the past. However, i believed that you spent too much time on how "retard" meant to delay or slow down. I do not think that you need 4 paragraps to describe that certain definition. And a hook paragraph might need some improvement to have the audience interested in your paper. Oncce you got to your thoughts on the word, i believed that the paper got much better and i was more intrigued than earlier during the etymology of the word. Just try to change your paper a little to make it more interesting and persuasive rather than just definitions. Besides that i believe that it was well written and organized

alyssa said...

I think that the word you choose to use was very interesting. I easily understood all of your defentions and the transitions they made over history. The point you make about individuals being offended is a very important one because many times people forget the capacity that some mentally handicaped people have. The only thing that I felt strayed me away from the topic of your paper was that I felt at sometimes I was being persuaded not to used the word retarded in regardes to a person that is not acctually menatlly retarded. Overall though the paper had a very nice structure and included many of the transitions of the word retarded.

Walker said...

I'm referring somebody to your blog who needs education on what the real meaning of retard is, not its modern-day connotation. Very well-written piece.

Carolyn said...

love it...Thank you for writing this -
and here is why...
http://www.yourtribenow.com/index.php/the-little-bus

miss. chief said...

Nice. I wish more people would see the difference between intended meaning and what the word actually means.

Cellis said...

I am writing an essay on this. Thank You so much. The quotes really supported the topic.

Unknown said...

I wish more people knew the actual transformation of the word. It irritates me that people see it as such a bad word and don't actually know the original definition and intended use for the word. If more people knew and understood the real meaning of the word then it wouldn't be seen as such an awful word to use.

Anonanonanon said...

Dear unknown - yes, it would still be seen as an awful word. The origins don't matter - common usage and intent does. In the UK and Europe, American usage of the term "retarded" is regarded with shock. It is a nasty word with unpleasant undertones, is insulting to those with special needs, and considering the vast array of alternative choice within the English language, should be allowed die a death. Good essay btw.

mrsmartgsl said...

I really apreciated this article. I really liked how it was backed up by quotes, howev there was a rather lengthy explanation of the previous definition (4 paragraphs!) on how it ment "back up" a long time ago. Otherwise, completely enjoyed reading this. Thank you!

sh waheed said...
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PikachusMoltres said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PikachusMoltres said...

Great article; however, I disagree with "I also think using 'retarded' to describe a mentally handicapped person is legitimate also."

Just listen to how 'retard' rolls off the tongue. It mustn't be used on people, as the pronunciation of it sounds offensive, even if a person means no harm when they say it.

Not only that, but it has 'tar' in it, and we all know what tar is.

Since it is used as a term for 'slow/etc', it will be used on mentally disabled people if the definitions in the dictionaries allow it (as many mentally disabled people tend to be slow with various things).

Richard Buxton said...

The word Retard is an automatic call-out in Airbus aircraft to remind the crew to reduce thrust on landing. A verb.

In Europe the word is never ever used as a noun. Europeans are a little more sensitive to use retard to describe a person.

American use is not necessarily English use.