Since blog comments had not been developed during the paleolithic period, my cro-magnon friend continues to respond via email. He & his neanderthal colleague insist I come down one way or the other on the use of the word “idiot.”
If I’m candid, I have to admit I’m on the fence. The history of “idiot” is just as noxious as that of “retard” but history does not supply the full answer. It also matters how the word is meant and heard in contemporary speech. I can say that when I hear the word “retard” I hear an effort to disparage the target by a comparison to a cognitively disabled person; when I hear “idiot” I interpret it to mean simply “stupid.”
So I would like to hear more from others — in the comments if you’re a modern human, email if cro-magnon — what you think when you say or hear the word “idiot.”
I was trying to think of other examples of words that have lost their true meaning as epithets, and are in general use without reference to an earlier offensive meaning. It’s easy to think of examples in the opposite direction: it doesn’t make the word “bitch” innocuous that its dictionary definition is “female dog.” I’ve heard it’s a false etymology that has rendered the word “handicap” unacceptable. It was thought to derive from a reference to begging — “cap in hand” or “hand in cap” — but in fact goes back to betting conventions involving the announcement of odds. Its real meaning, in other words, is the one at the racetrack. While I suppose it is mildly offensive to for a disability to be analogized to odds in betting, the ADA definition is “substantially impaired in a major life activity,” which seems much more explicitly harsh than being burdened with longer odds. Or maybe I’m just remembering fondly our last vacation in Vegas.
One of the reasons I would like to hear from other folks is that I have recently been called on a couple of words that I now try not to use but have not gotten to the point of busting others’ asses for using (as I generally do with “retard”). Among these are “crazy” and its synonyms and “lame.” All of these disparage by comparison to people with disabilities, and there’s just no way to spin that comparison that makes it OK. Seems to me disrespectful to use a group characteristic as an insult. That is, until “Republican” is seen for the insult it truly is!