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 moron, idiot, 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?