The R Word

English is not my native language, but it was interesting watching the hoopla over the use of the R word, first by Rahm Emanuel as an 'insult', then by Rush Limbaugh as 'satire', then by Sarah Palin's differentiation between the two, and finally by Stephen Colbert's play on the same.

A lot of words that are now used as insults did not start that way. Retard means slow. Mental retardation is quite literally translated into the benign mental slowing, which seems to be a perfectly fine lay-term for cognitive impairment. After being bandied about as an insult for several years, it is now rightly considered a pejorative term. There is talk of replacing the DSM diagnosis of Mental Retardation with Intellectual Disability. Will that stop words for low intelligence being used as derogatory terms? Remember Idiot? And Moron? All words for people with different grades of IQ before they passed into the world of bad words. So how long before Intellectually Disabled becomes the new good bad word?

We could extend the argument further, to the historically hurtful N word. I heard it on M.A.S.H. a couple of weeks ago, being thrown around casually to describe a blood dyscrasia more common in African Americans. No doctor in his/her right mind would dare do that today. How about Native? Midget? And one of psychiatry's very own, Borderline? I've already heard it being used as an insult, though mostly by psychiatrists and psych patients.

We're never going to stop insulting each other and making fun of the vulnerable. Maybe that's how it will always be, a few words chosen to segregate and divide, until they fall out of favor, to be replaced by new ones.


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About purplesque

Psychiatrist, cook, bookworm, photographer. Not necessarily in that order.
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33 Responses to The R Word

  1. jaklumen says:

    We're never going to stop insulting each other and making fun of the
    vulnerable. Maybe that's how it will always be, a few words chosen to
    segregate and divide, until they fall out of favor, to be replaced by
    new ones.I think that's it precisely, and why people get so frustrated with so-called "political correctness". The insults continue no matter what people try to do with it. Social groups try to reclaim a word, but only those in the group can use it– they can't take away the intended insult. Others try to substitute, but then people find the terms, often crafted by legal concerns, as ridiculous. And then the newer generations just come up with something different. The kids say "that's so gay" now when and where my generation said "that's so retarded."Many comedians try to use humor to get people to examine their prejudices (I think that Psychology Today article was right: everyone has them, but some hide them better than others), but even their best laid plans go awry. Richard Pryor decided to stop using the N word; he said something about he understood only damage and hurt came of using it. David Chapelle was shocked to find gangs weren't always a racial thing… he said in a stand-up in England that he was amazed to see white street thugs. According to Wikipedia, he is now a practicing Muslim and seems to be embarrassed by some of his earlier material. Marshall Mathers (Eminem) was criticized for homophobic lyrics in some of his albums… he wound up doing PR (or publicity stunts, if you will with Elton John and Sasha Baron Cohen (as his Bruno character).As long as human beings chase dichotomies (us vs. them, me vs. you, for us or against us, etc.) in their definitions, I don't think it will ever end. It seems to be a limitation of our rather finite condition. I think people are able to transcend that to a degree, but I think it remains unless and until we come to something… infinite.

  2. Aubrey says:

    It like what people say about guns. Guns don't kill people. People kill people. The little bullets will always be there, always within reach of a humanity bent on cruelty.
    When I was in jr. high school, we had our own insult word: 'non'. "You're such a non." A non-entity, just emphasizing the untilmate unimportance of the victim.

  3. Waterbaby says:

    No; "nigger" hasn't always been historically hurtful. There was a time it was a neutral word; it was assigned a changed meaning/connotation, as words are, as societies and cultures shifted. It's still used today in the positive sense among certain groups and individuals. And to be clear, Rahm E. didn't call them retards, he called them "fucking retarded" and one would think that at least as many would be offended at the use of the f-word by a man in his position as "retarded."

  4. When I was growing up the word "retard" was always thrown at anyone and everyone. I don't hear it so often these days. For many years the term used in most of Australian society is Intellectual Disability or Intellectually Challenged. I think it shows more respect and empathy.

  5. Doug says:

    The other effect of this gradual changing of a word's intended usage and meaning is that it removes perfectly good words from polite usage. The person who wishes not to convey insult, even inadvertently, is continually limited by a need to "double check" his choice of words. This is an unfair burden, leaving ignorant, pejorative, bullying people with the use of formerly useful and descriptive words and more freedom to speak them. The use of better language and precise wording has become a target of ridicule, being branded the province of "the elite."

  6. Jabulani says:

    Brilliant post. And ab-so-lu-tiver-lee correct. We will never stop prejudice; but we DO have the chance to alter it. As a South African, I had a prejudice against non-whites <i>educated</i> into me. As an 18-yo, I had to re-educate myself. I went to US and had to deal with their prejudice against me as a white South African; I encountered more racism in America than ever I'd faced in SA. I even had a conversation with a young black 3rd-year law student who told me, yes <i>told</i> me I shouldn't be talking to him because I was white and he was black!! He had no idea there were white SAs who may not agree with the "rules"!! When I moved to UK, I don't sound like the people here so I'm excused much with a wave of a hand and an "Oh she's foreign". (I confess, I play on this … it can be dead handy sometimes!!) People have come to realise my foreigness can sometimes be an asset. When I had children, I actively decided to remain a stay-at-home-mom. When people ask me what I do and I tell them, you can immediately feel their scorn come up, their derision as they suddenly lump me in with those benefit-grabbing-scabs-on-society who do nothing but sit on their backsides all day looking for their next handout (more prejudice??). They don't even wait to hear me tell them how many organisations I do voluntary service for, or whether I even had an education/opinion/contribution to make. They've already cut me off and moved onto someone who works and is therefore a much more worthwhile human being. No, it doesn't matter how much PC-ness we force into our society. As long as mankind gets off on lighting into someone else, they will do so. Politicians may want to make this one big happy pond of smiling, equal fishies, but it just ain't gonna happen. Well, perhaps not until the political twats get out the pond altogether and leave us to find our own way to acceptance!!

  7. Excellent post! As you say, the words that are now considered as 'insults' are just going to be replaced by new ones. Political correctness and word play is not going to stop the insults!

  8. Interesting post, but I will agree with Doug: if someone asks me not to refer to him/her by a particular term, I'll abide by the request. That isn't political correctness, it's just common courtesy.

  9. Zotta says:

    Very thoughtful ramble, P. Good idea for the NY Times Sunday Magazine "On Language" column.

  10. Purplesque says:

    I think you're right, and that its in our nature to chase dichotomies, which is probably why things won't change.

  11. Purplesque says:

    High school is such a cruel time. I can't think of an insult worse than non.

  12. Purplesque says:

    That's exactly what I was trying to say, Wbaby, that the N word that was used 30 years ago in common conversation has now become an insult. As for f*%^king, that's probably less an insult word than an anger word. There is usually a noun attached at the end to make it an insult..yet, poor f*%$ing is the one that gets bleeped out.

  13. Purplesque says:

    Yes. Growing up in India, retard was not used as an insult word, unlike idiot or stupid, which is probably why I still don't find it very offensive.

  14. Purplesque says:

    Exactly! I still used the word retard, except I can't just say 'this retarded child'. I have to say, 'this child with a diagnosis of mental retardation'..While meaning the same thing, and intended the same way, the latter comes across as clinical while the former comes across as an insult..I don't much care about political correctness, but I do like manners. 🙂

  15. Purplesque says:

    Sigh..but we found the political system, didn't we, S? I don't see it going away..Another area in which we have had similar experiences. As an brown-skinned person in the US, I have faced some racism. (The positive experiences have far outweighed the negative.) More interesting has been the covert racism of my own community against others. While Indians are generally docile in the society at large, they have their own preconceptions of all communities. A and I often talk about how 'open' the US really is, and how much harder it would be for an American to get assimilated in India than vice versa. (Not that they'd be rejected, but probably a combination of idealization/ridicule.)

  16. Purplesque says:

    Its such a sad realization, though..

  17. Purplesque says:

    I agree with Doug, too, HG. There are people that I know (teachers, too, bless them) who have shown me how to be politically incorrect/inquisitive/intrusive and everything else that psychiatrists need to be without being rude. In your shoes, I would have found it hard to say that to my student- 'political correctness' would have won over the need to inform my student of what she really needed to know. I'm getting better now, thanks to teachers like you!

  18. Waterbaby says:

    Uh, not exactly; you cited nigger as historically hurtful, whereas there's a time in history where it wasn't, but never mind. Some folks are more offended by the use of f*cking than whatever noun, verb, adjective, adverb or phrase that follows; it can be even more insulting than the word(s) it precedes. Anywho, he sure made a public ass of himself … or is it now also politically incorrect to say the "a-word"? – lol

  19. Purplesque says:

    I also gave an example of 'negro' being used in the TV show M.A.S.H. as an everyday term. My point was that back in the days of M.A.S.H., it wasn't considered an ugly word, even though racism itself was alive and well. It is 'historically hurtful', as in being hurtful because of the history of race relations in the US.

  20. Scott says:

    To my ear, "intellectually disabled" already sounds insulting, as if it meant "lacking intellectualism."
    As in: "Yeah, I tried to talk to that guy about Wittgenstein, but he's so intellectually disabled he just wanted to talk about football."
    I hope they can come up with a better descriptor than that.

  21. jaklumen says:

    Doug and others in my Neighborhood have had long discussions on the merits of manners, discipline, and courtesy; I have always appreciated what he has had to say.

  22. I wanted to say it's because Doug is from Wisconsin, but then I've been to Packers-Vikings games where I thought war was going to break out! The Midwest is better-mannered than California, but even there you see more incidents of nasty verbal exchanges on the street.

  23. jaklumen says:

    Yes, I know what you mean about Japan. But we'd have a different set of social challenges, probably.

  24. Purplesque says:

    Exactly! What could they possibly use? 'IQ range 60-80?' Even that would probably soon pass into insult-dom- 'I can't get talk to him, you know, he's an IQ-60er..'

  25. Doug says:

    Where does the notion of midwestern civility come from? I've seen little evidence of it, except in their own minds.

  26. Scott says:

    If I recall correctly, a character in Douglas Coupland's novel Microserfs used "100" as a dismissive term referring to a person of unexceptional intelligence.

  27. I've met Japanese nationals who fit your description of being rigid and seemingly unspontaneous; but I've also met Japanese who were extraordinarily outgoing, creative and open to new ideas. They vary from individual to individual, just like Americans.

  28. Doug says:

    Sorry, I didn't mean to be rude or judgemental. Dang, this multi-cultural stuff is tough!

  29. LG says:

    Where does this whole political-incorrectness originate? US? Because in our native languages in India, words that could be used as an insult (and are occasionally) still continue to be used because it is just more practical to say “sevidu” (“Deaf”) instead of “Kaadhu kelaathor” (“hard of hearing”) etc.

    I have a friend who is a “special ed” instructor and she takes offense to her wards being referred to as “mentally retarded”, which, if I think is silly because the user of the term more often than not, uses it exactly for its meaning than connotations.

    Oh well.

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