Wordplay: The “R” Word

As someone who writes a lot, I have a personal fascination with words, where they come from, and what they evolve into. One word in particular that came up during a recent conversation with friends was retard. Very obviously a socially unacceptable word, but it’s one I first encountered in aviation, where manuals advise on when to advance or retard the throttle during engine testing. Until the conversation, I don’t think I’d ever mentally connected the aviation use of the word with the insulting use as applied to human beings, and so I got curious about where it came from. How could one word have such disparate applications?

The word itself is French, and it translates to delay. The connotation is that something external is creating a delay, blockage, or slowdown; you must retard the throttle, because it will not do so itself. The further-back origin, of course, is Vulgar Latin, which is what all the modern Romantic languages derived from. There’s also an Anglo-Norman variant, likely from around the same origin time. You also see variants in fields like music, where ritardando means to slow the tempo (many musical terms come to us from Italian, which of course also derived from Vulgar Latin).

In written use, the word goes back to at least the 1600s, when it still meant a blockage, or something being held back, or something being slowed down. It was first applied to humans (as near as I can track down) in a 1909 pediatric journal: “Then there are the ‘backwards,’ or the retards for their years, and those subnormally endowed in respect to mental gifts…” It’s likely the term wasn’t used pejoratively in a medical journal; words like moron and idiot were also used clinically at one point.

Various articles point to Frank Rooney’s 1954 novel, The Courts of Memory, as a first use of retarded in a deliberately denigrating way: “God, you’re simple, Dick… you’ve got an IQ about equal to a squirrel’s. You’re retarded, do you hear me?” Obviously the word would have been in common use verbally in order for the author to have picked up on it, and from at least that rough timeframe, the word was considered insulting (if not vulgar), at least when applied to humans.

Clinically, people moved on from retard just as they did from moronidiot, and the like; doctors and scientists created new terms as they delved more into psychiatry, learning, and related fields. The new terms provided more granular descriptions of conditions, although retard lived on in clinical journals as well as “public use” for a lot longer than some other words. It’s been suggested that the longer “official” use of there word in medicine may be why it’s considered more offensive today than terms like idiot, which had a relatively briefer life as a medical term.

Regardless, the term is obviously deeply insensitive and insulting today, and I’m not suggesting we revive it or treat it differently. I just am fascinated with where words like this come from, and how their original meanings get twisted as the language evolves. My circa-1960s aviation manuals, were they written today, would doubtless direct me to advance or back off the throttle, “back off” being the accepted verbal term when I was working on planes in the early 1990s (you pull the plane’s throttle back, or toward the pilot, to reduce the engine output). Today, I’ve never heard “retard” being used verbally in any way that wasn’t meant to be insulting or condescending (I’m not saying the French or Italians don’t use it less offensively, but since my grasp of French and Italian is so poor, I wouldn’t know).

Do you know of any words that started out life meaning one thing, and then gradually changed into something… well, perhaps similar, but also altogether different?

3 thoughts on “Wordplay: The “R” Word

  1. chuckboycejrChuck

    The English language allows words to have multiple, distinct definitions for the same word. Logic, however, does not allow us to use those distinct and different definitions interchangeably. If we fail to respect the constraints of logic we commit what is referred to as a “fallacy”. A fallacy is clever sounding nonsense that is without any meaning. This particular type of fallacy has a name. It is called the “fallacy of equivocation”. The textbook example of this fallacy is: “People often decry prostitution and advocate it should be illegal but politicians prostitute themselves all the time and they never go to jail.”

    This is clever sounding sophistry but completely illogical. The definitions in both cases are clearly distinct yet the writer attempts to use them interchangeably. Utter nonsense and devoid of logic.

  2. Hank

    Getting hung up on words as offensive or not politically correct is retarded because it holds back truths and self-expression. Just because society deems some word as inappropriate doesn’t magically change the way people think or feel, just the way they might speak around certain other people. And in some cases, that word may work better for describing someone or something than another. For instance, “Donald Trump is a fucking retard” is truthful and very expressive, whereas “Donald Trump is really dim-witted” works but lacks the expressiveness and ferocity needed to fully convey the meaning.

    1. Don Jones

      I’ll both agree and disagree.

      When you want to make a strong statement, there’s nothing like a strong word. That said, I think we have – for decades, now – simply trended toward ever-stronger words, because we have some desire to make an impactful statement and we feel “lesser” words just won’t do. So now we have politicians who talk of battle zones and war plans, which is really f-ing inappropriate since they’re talking about the populace they allegedly serve.

      And “Donald Trump is a fucking retard” is an opinion; not an objective truth. I’d even argue that it’s not especially expressive; it just uses strong language. It’s like the difference between fine art showing a nude woman and a copy of “Hustler.” One is perhaps more expressive than the other.

      I think people aim for those more impactful words simply to try and be heard above all the noise, but since everyone’s using the same impactful words, it’s just more noise.

      But set aside things like political and public speech. Sometimes it has nothing to do with what society “deems” or doesn’t deem. Word selection can also tell someone what you think of them, and let them know where they stand with you. Referring to someone as “sir” in most cases indicates at least a modicum of respect, which may well be something you want to convey to some individuals at some times. Calling someone a “retard” lets them know you have no respect for them, and that you consider them to be “lesser.” While that might be your intent when speaking with the current President, I’d certainly hope you wouldn’t refer to a young person with a learning disability in such a way, unless they’d truly done something to deserve such derision.

      Some words ARE offensive, and you don’t have to be “hung up” on that. “Politically correct” is another thing.

      I’ll offer one additional thing, though: speech in the US is free, but that means “without restriction” not “without consequence.” If you walk around, for example, referring to learning-disabled children as “retards” all the time, you’re likely to suffer some social consequences. That’s not “politically correct,” that’s simply the other people around you exercising their own free speech. So long as you’re cool with the consequences, then you’re without restriction in terms of what you say.

      But society does have a collective right, and a role, in determining what the collective feels is appropriate or inappropriate use of freedoms like speech. Murder is illegal because society collectively decided it would be; we rarely hear of “politically correct” being applied to that topic. German society has collectively decided that speech promoting Nazi perspectives is unacceptable; that’s the determination of their collective, and violators face consequences.

      I get how it can be onerous to “keep up” with whatever is supposed to be acceptable to the collective, and I think it’s well within each person’s right to review the potential consequences and make their own decisions. Stand-up comics do this routinely as part of their business, often reminding us that uncomfortable words and topics NEED to be revisited, and their profession in most cases protects them from consequences.

      I personally get hung up on words because I feel they ARE important. They’re how we communicate ideas and concepts, even offensive ones. They’re how we communicate our respect, or lack of it, for each other. And, certainly, different segments of a single society can have different rules; my African-American friends have language they can freely use amongst themselves that, in ordinary situations, I’m not free to mimic without negative consequences. That’s the nature not of language, but of people. Language simply reflects our own complicated selves.

      And I’m not saying you’re wrong or inviting negative consequences :). I just have a slightly different perspective from my own experiences than you likely do from your own. Thanks for sharing yours!

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