A well-meaning neanderthal liberal dropped me a note asking whether “idiot,” “moron” or “imbecile” were as offensive as “retard.”
Good question — so I thought I’d see if anyone else wanted to weigh in on it. My gut* says “idiot” and “moron” are OK; “imbecile” is not so OK, but I don’t have any idea why. My best guess is that “idiot” and “moron” are much farther from their (unfortunate) clinical roots than “retard” is. But I’m very much open to being called on that. Honestly, I seem to recall hearing that “hysterical” has its roots in an internal organ that women have but men do not, and should thus be avoided. In light of the crap I have to read every day, though, I don’t plan to stop saying things are hysterical. Or maybe I’m just reclaiming words of female disempowerment . . . bitches!
Ultimately, there is some keeping track to do — I have learned only relatively recently that “gyp” and “welsh” are inappropriate as epithets and have stopped using them. But it seems to me it’s no more arduous than all the keeping track we have to do if we generally want to be thoughtful people: who is “Dr.” and who is “Mr.” or “Ms.;” who might have had personal experiences that make certain topics of conversation painful or awkward; whether and which cuss words are appropriate for the context (e.g., court hearing; lunch with in-laws; drinks with co-counsel, in order of increasing profanity).
What do other folks think?
* Update: A cro-magnon colleague of the aforesaid neanderthal wrote to point out my gut’s total historical ignorance. None of these three words — “idiot,” “moron” or “imbecile” — is ok, he writes, because “back in the day, mental retardation was defined based upon severity as idiot, imbecile and moron. Those words all define levels of retardation and were even politically incorrect about 40 years ago.” So was I supposed to do research & shit before blogging? I skipped that page of the instruction manual!
Seems to me, though, that in current usage, “retard” is meant to compare the target of the epithet to a person with cognitive disabilities, whereas “idiot” and “moron,” at least, have taken on a more general meaning of “stupid.”
A theory: much of what’s wrong with humanity is unusually evident in the behavior of 7th graders. When 7th graders use words like these, they usually have learned them from family members or from friends who have learned them from family or other acquaintances. When adults use words of this type, words that attack two populations simultaneously, the f word to attack gays, the r word, or phrases relating to the actions of Jews, they are often using the words without thinking rather than using the words to attack people directly (doesn’t excuse the usage just defines a different situation.) 7th graders are more likely to attack people directly. They often assert their own status by denigrating people who belong to the out group and also by attacking people who don’t belong to these groups by associating them with the out group. I think this is particularly pernicious with the R word because of the vulnerability of the people being attacked, but I would think that a 7th grader who uses the word “imbecile” is watching too much BBC America. And out of curiosity, are the Welch, gypsies and Dutch offended by the terms that have been associated with them. It would seem that a test of usage should at least require some offense in the recent past. Why would we insist that words be forced to carry their original connotations?
You make a good point that someone ought to be offended before the rest of us start worrying about a given word. But I do think many of these words say something about the speaker, too. For better or worse, I’ve stopped referring to Washington’s football team by name. Not sure who I might offend, but I don’t feel right using the word. You’re also probably right that many adults who use the r word aren’t specifically comparing the target to a person with cognitive disabilities, but your earlier point was also right: the general use of such language distances the speaker and his audience from the epithet’s community. When I hear it, I think of Tim’s brother — who is pretty significantly cognitively disabled — and I think this speaker thinks it’s a bad thing to be like Andy. It’s painful for me to hear.
My last point was intended to distinguish the r word from imbecile. The fact that an adult uses the R word without reflection is bad for a number of reasons, though I don’t think one of those reasons would be the statement it makes about the speaker. While I would be surprised if some adults did not use the R word as a pejorative, I doubt it’s very common; I don’t think people are aware of the pain they cause as a general matter, and I’m fairly certain that they are unaware of the more indirect effects. I’m not sure what I think about the other R word. I would think that there are plenty of people who would be offended by the term–I don’t think the same is true of going dutch or to welsh on a bet. It’s weird, however, because it’s impossible to imagine the term being used today outside of the NFL. Words such as imbecile and moron have fairly stable associations that create at least some distance from their origins. And it would pain me, I’m sad to say, if there were no words left with which I could call someone stupid, though perhaps that thought is the underlying problem.
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Saying someone is retarded is not nice. It’s not meant to be. It is an insult. ‘Retard’ is still a valid word. We should not insist that any longstanding words now have to be hyphenated because they are too bad to say. It is amusing that idiot and imbecile are just fine and dandy – they are simply not currently part of the popular vernacular. Adopt a new term, and that will be fine until it evolves into your new ‘r-word’. If you want it to go away, I would ignore it. Giving it a hyphenation-designation validates and elevates it to f-bomb and c-word status, you fucking retard.