As a self-professed bibliophile, I have a love affair with the English language. There are so many ways to say the same thing. Instead of “strange” I could say “eldritch”, “progeny” instead of “kids”, “mien” instead of “expression”, and etc.
Yes, I do like that knowing all these words can make me sound smarter than I really am, but I’m also aware that regular, everyday speech is far preferable to obtuse vernacular any day of the week, especially when it comes to just having a regular chat with your friends.
In high school English class, we’re not only taught the modern classics like Slaughterhouse Five and Catcher in the Rye, which is supposed to make Literature accessible to us poor dumb Millennials who grew up reading Goosebumps and Harry Potter instead of Shakespeare and Dickens. These lessons were (supposed) to not only expose to the beauty of our mother tongue, but also its dangers.
I remember one particularly interesting day in my Gr. 10 English class we had a big, noisy and fascinating discussion about the “n-word”, and when and where it was acceptable to use it. No, not “nice” (although that one does annoy me), the one that black comedians and rappers seem to use with impunity, but if I were to even type it out, (being, as I am, a 20-something white kid of European descent), some random troll could piss all over my day by flagging it a hate speech.
I recalled this lesson a few years ago when I learned about a controversy brewing in the literary world. Back in 2011, new editions of Mark Twain’s classic coming-of-age novels, Tom Sawyer & The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, had been released with the racial slurs “nigger” and “injun” being replaced by more racially neutral terms. That must have been a very tedious process. The word “nigger” alone crops up about 200 times in the story.
Now, of course, we are taught in school that there are Bad Words that we shouldn’t use, because they hurt others feelings. A whole lexicon of slurs, phrases and slang are not only banned in the classrooms, but by bloggers and forum moderators.
We can debate until Judgment Day about whether taking out the word “nigger” in Mark Twain’s novels is another case of political correctness gone mad, or it was a necessary act to protect the impressionable minds of children who are in danger of having said minds corrupted if they happen to wander into the library and suddenly develop a craving for 19th century American literature.
Putting that topic aside for the moment, there is another word that people my age use that infuriates me. Yeah, it’s “retard”. A lot of people are sensitive about this word, seeing as how we are very sensitive about the words we use. “You can’t say retarded” someone people surely say “use the phrase mentally slow instead”.
Yet, over and over I see the same phrases pop up in comments and forum posts.
“You’re 25 and you still watch cartoons? What are you, retarded?”
“That dude crashed into a telephone pole while taking a selfie, what a retard!”
“You’ve completely missed the point of what I was talking about, are you a retard?”
I’m especially sensitive about this word because I was a special needs kid. I rode the little bus to school every day with a revolving door of other kids over the years with problems far worse than mine. In high school I shared the bus with two boys. One was my age, but he spoke and acted like a six-year-old. The other one had a developmental disorder so severe that he couldn’t speak. He could only communicate in groans and moans.
These boys – they were real retards.
Let me explain myself before you get worked up about me acting like a hypocritical Orwellian dictator or something.
Here’s the definition of stupid from the dictionary: “showing poor judgment or little intelligence” “having or showing a lack of ability to learn things” “not being able to think normally because you are drunk, tired, etc.
Now here is the definition for retard: “slow or limited intellectual/emotional development or academic progress.”
Can you spot the difference?
Stupidity is a state of mind a person can get themselves out of with a library card, or Wikipedia, or a hangover cure. A retard is a person who was born with a condition that they have no control over, like me with my cerebral palsy. Except unfortunately for them, they will have to be cared for by family and special needs programs for the rest of their lives.
Just because you find yourselves encountering someone talking out their ass about evolution, economics, the poor state of our schools, or whatever, you don’t need to go around mislabelling them. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and either patiently critique their arguments in a calm, courteous manner, or refer them to a an article or book written by someone who has studied the topic of discussion at hand.
I call those boys retards, because that is what they are, and because I think the phrase “mentally slow” is a mouthful. I do not consider the term to be hurtful to people with developmental disabilities of that particular nature. I could see it being inappropriate if I were to call someone with Asperger’s or some other degree of autism retarded. But we must remember that the word “retard” isn’t synonymous with “stupid” just as “gay” means, (or used to mean anyway), “happy” and “joyful”. We let these words become harmful labels through our ignorance and spite, and word of mouth and the media just keeps the ball of misinformation rolling along.
Words are wonderful, powerful, dangerous little things. The next time we write that next blog post, let’s remember the immortal words of Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”