The R-Word

Language is an ever-evolving form of communication. Over time, word meanings can shift and what once was clinical can become derogatory and damaging. This has happened with the R-word.

For those who don’t know: The R-word is “Retard” or “Retarded.”

My daughter Cami has special needs. She has both physical and mental handicaps. She is also beautiful and sweet and perfect. Like so many children and adults like her, her life is hard enough without having to endure name-calling. But, the use of the R-word goes beyond that, doesn’t it? It’s not just a name. We hear the R-word used in casual speech all the time.

“That’s retarded.”

I’ve heard it said so many times in reference to anything from a bad movie to an ugly shirt. The meaning is understood: anything described as “retarded” is bad. But “retarded” is so much more than that. It is also a clinical descriptor of mentally handicapped people (though it is quickly going out of fashion even in those circles) and a derogatory term for people like my daughter.

I’m reminded of the TV show Community. One character on the show, Britta, is known as “the worst.” She perpetually screws things up to the point that, now, when anyone on the show does something wrong or incorrectly, they’ve “Britta’ed” it. Britta, understandably, is offended and hurt by this. Since the show is a comedy, we laugh. In the context of the show, “Britta’ed” is an inside joke among friends.

But the R-word is not an inside joke. It’s a real word that means something real whose meaning has been twisted into something almost entirely negative. When you use the R-word to describe something you disdain–even if you’re not referring to a person–it still hurts. You are “Britta’ing” the English language and bringing down an entire, amazing class of people to make your point.

Words aren’t just words. They come loaded with meaning, and that meaning can change over time.

Right now, there’s a way for you to take a stand against the R-word. I encourage you to go to this site to help “spread the word to end the word” by taking a simple pledge.

I took the pledge for my daughter Cami and for all the people with mental handicaps just like her. Is sacrificing one word in our vocabulary too much to ask to promote love and thoughtfulness? I hope not.

What do you think? Did you take a pledge? If so, please let me know in the comments!

14 thoughts on “The R-Word

  1. I have already pledged in other forums, but I will do it here as well. I have used it clinically, but I use it shortened and diagnostically, not as the person is, but the diagnosis the person has.


    1. Thanks, Marty. I get that for clinical reasons the word will still be employed, but I so appreciate people like you who understand the difference.


  2. My wife has worked in the disability area for many years, and I have helped out, as well as being a film student, cognizant of the media impact of words.
    There are far too many words the “political correctness police” want us to abandon; this is a needless gutting of the variety and power of the English language.
    “Retarded”, in the mental health sense, is not one of them I would miss.
    In fact, the only denotation (dictionary definition, for those less wordy) of the word I support is in the usage, “to retard the spark”, as in adjusting the timing of an engine.
    Mark Twain said it best: The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bulb.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Alexander. I used to be wholeheartedly against political correctness, but I think in some rare cases it is warranted. This issue is one of those. Personally, generally speaking, if I don’t belong to a group and that group objects to being referred to a certain way, I like to respect that desire. Only seems fair.


  3. Hm. Read this; just had to say something on it. Even though I’m noticing now, I’m about 4 years late to the party. Eh, I’ll call that “fashionably late”.

    About that whole pledge idea:
    Stop using a word altogether? Just drop it from our vocabularies? Doubleplusgood idea! 😀

    My thoughtplus talkback to such a plusgood notion: No. Not yesterday, not today, and not tomorrow, nor even the day after tomorrow, the day after that, and so on extending at least through my own lifespan.

    My understanding, flawed though it may be, is that language exists to clarify and communicate ideas. Therefore, acquisition or addition, and more importantly, retainment, of words and their associated meanings is a desirable goal. Precision is important. Deletion will not make us better individuals, nor will it build a better society.

    To say that in a more “concrete” way:

    It’s like the KKK. There is absolutely a place in society for it. Just not a nice place. It’s the sort of place where folks go when they want to commit a good ole fashioned serious of heinous “hate crimes”, and then barbecue the body over the smoldering remains of the big book-burning event they hosted the previous week. Which incidentally, they had kicked off by lighting the first book with a burning cross.

    Totally off the tracks here now, I never really understood that. A christian organization, burning a cross? Really? How did that happen, did they say “Well, we’re already ignoring ‘Love thy neighbor’…Why don’t we burn a cross too, while we’re at it?”


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