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.