When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. ‘ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things. … ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Retard (accent on first syllable)/retarded now has achieved official status as a taboo word: it has been reduced to an initial: “the R-word,” joining “the N-, B-, C-, and F-words” (the last one also referred to as “the F-bomb,” in recognition of its special status and power).
Let’s get this out right up front: they are all just words, just sounds produced by acrobatics of the vocal organs. We give them the power to inflame or offend us.
To experience what I mean, listen to people speaking a foreign language.
All you hear is just streams of sounds. Those speakers could be telling dirty jokes, cursing up a storm, insulting our mothers, but you wouldn’t know it, because the mind on the receiving end (yours or mine) can’t interpret — or even hear — the taboo words.
So retard is a sequence of six sounds, nothing more, segmented from the stream of speech. Anything else is meaning supplied by speaker and hearer.
When we communicate, there’s often a disconnect between intention and interpretation, and we’re aware of it, at least implicitly. Look at the frequency of I mean… (and its many cousins — my point is; I’m trying to tell you…; Frankly, and more — all deployed in the service of clarifying intent or putting the utterance in context.
The function of such expressions is “response management.” We want to bring intention and interpretation as close as possible — unless we don’t, as with advertisers, politicians, and clerics, who thrive on ambiguity.
Making the disconnect work for you
Perhaps no group more frequently or maliciously exploits the disconnect than the proponents of politically correct speech. They use the misnomer “trigger words” for anything they find — but that the speaker does not intend to be — offensive.
Retard(ed) has passed into everyday slang and has thus joined imbecile, idiot, and moron, once just clinical terms for mental incapacity. As I recall, moron was a person mentally aged 12, and idiot was the most, well, retarded of the three.
Has anybody recently heard retard used as a direct insult that, painfully, fits the insultee?
Not me. I hear it over and over as a general term of disparagement — for one’s inability to grasp or adhere to certain ideas (when applied to liberals, the result is the portmanteau word libtards)…or to engage in a pastime or process that the speaker considers unworthy, e.g., The football retards are at it again.
The latter is an existential statement, a profound and subtle put-down of the way someone else chooses to spend his/her limited time on earth. To me, it ranks right up there, in succinctness and pungency, with (You need to) get a life.
We’re all equally equal
This use is a metaphoric derivation of one of the applications of retard(ed), which is from an old Latin/French root with many connotation of slowness or lagging behind (cf. tardy). It was once an acceptable way of referring to someone with limited mental capacities.
No more. Today everybody is equally equal.
I know someone who was viciously trashed online for using the r-word. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t intend it as a direct insult, meant to wound the less well-endowed. It doesn’t matter if your utterance has nothing to do with such a person.
It doesn’t matter if you intended, as must be clear from the context, to use it in a metaphoric or derived sense, to disparage or diminish something or someone completely unrelated. We’re always looking for new and stronger words to express our (dis)approval.
Real language abuses
Let’s lighten up out there. This isn’t where we should be investing our energies. Let’s refocus on the language abuses that really hurt us.
Just for starters:
-vague political snarls that pass for speech (“We choose truth over facts” [Biden]; “Lock her up!”);
-meaningless political blather that passes for speech (“diversity is our strength”; or Trump, channeling Yogi Berra, “I kept promises I didn’t even make.”)
-new and ridiculous — but politically correct — euphemisms that fool no one (felons rebranded as justice-involved individuals);
-advertising come-ons (drink the beer, get the girl);
-religious fantasies that direct people to hate and kill each other;
-impenetrable legal language that binds people to contracts they don’t understand or creates shady financial instruments of the kind that helped cause the 2008 market crash.
The tide of BS continues to rise. Not to recognize and oppose it is…retarded.