Retarded is derived from the Latin, retardare and means a delay. This etymology helps to explain the appropriate medical use of the word: mentally retarded referring to an individual with significantly sub average intellectual functioning, typically an I.Q. of less than 70-75, and physical retardation which means a significant delay in physical abilities.
Retarded has also been co-opted as derogatory urban slang for stupid. When it graduated to the derogatory Merriam-Webster English for stupid, it became the R-word. Medical communities have responded in kind, almost universally replacing the word “retarded” with “intellectual disability.” They mean exactly the same thing. A low I.Q.
I find the universal cleansing of retarded from both the English language and medical terminology interesting, because the word retarded was not born out of any offensive intent. There are some medial terms that were born bad. A good example is Mongolism, a term coined by a quite possibly xenophobic Dr. Down for describing what is now known as Down syndrome. But is retarded, a word that has had a valid medical meaning for over a hundred years, and is derived from an inoffensive latin origin, really as bad as words whose sole purpose is to wound and maim. By reducing it to the R-word, aren’t we in fact assigning it the same odious status of the N-word and the C-word?
If changing medical terminology and cleansing our language removes prejudice and intolerance, then our professional societies have a lot of reclassification to organize. Who among us hasn’t heard the word spaz (derogatory for spasticity, the hallmark finding among individuals with cerebral palsy), schizo (short for schizophrenic), psycho (short for psychotic), bipolar, or cretin used pejoratively? Or is it somehow less offensive to co-opt these words?
Language is dynamic. In time, foreign words, slang, and even medical terms will become part of our vernacular and while most will enhance our language, a few will be used offensively. However, removing the word “retarded” from both medicine and what my mother would call polite language does nothing to change attitudes, improve manners, or teach compassion. Those advocates who feel that retarded should be the R-word should ask themselves: Would Lady Gaga’s intent have been any different if she had called her detractors “intellectually disabled”?
Just ask my kids. You can call someone wrong or misinformed, but you should never, ever call them stupid.