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.”