Friday, June 17, 2011

The Euphemism Treadmill - replacing the "R-Word"

Stephen Pinker in his 2003 book “The Blank Slate” coined the name euphemism treadmill for the process whereby words introduced to replace an offensive word, over time become offensive themselves. A current example of this is mental retardation.

The word itself comes from the Latin retardare meaning “to make slow, delay or hinder”.

Retardation was first used in the psychiatric sense in 1895, and eventually replaced older terms – once neutral themselves – like moron, imbecile, idiot, feeble-minded and cretin. Each of these terms had a specific meaning as to severity and age of development (cretinism for example referred to severe congenital hypothyroidism) but these meanings often differed between countries. The new term was subdivided into degrees of mild, moderate and severe mental retardation. These new technical terms were no doubt welcomed by those affected, as the previous names were being used as derogatory insults (as indeed they still are).

By the 1960s when I was in grade school, the same process had occurred with retardation. “Retard” was a common playground insult, as in “Look where yer goin’, ya retard!”  To us at the time it was considered harmless fun (although I now recognize the potential to really hurt someone who did have an intellectual disability). In Grade 7 my buddy Doug and I did impersonations of “retarded chipmunks” in which we tucked our lower lip inside our upper front teeth and crossed our eyes.

Since that time retardation has been gradually replaced by a variety of more acceptable (at least for now) terms including mentally handicapped, mentally impaired, mentally challenged, intellectually challenged, intellectually disabled, learning disabled, and developmentally disabled. The last two of course are broader terms that include other conditions not covered by the meaning of mental retardation.

The term retardation is also associated in the minds of many with the period of time in which people with intellectual disabilities (the term I will use) were abused, discriminated against and locked away from society. While this is not the fault of the word, a change in terminology will help us put that period of history behind us.

These changes are still taking place. It wasn’t until 2006 that the American Association on Mental Retardation changed their name to American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. There is currently a bill before the Saskatchewan Legislature to expunge the “R-word” from provincial government statutes; the passing of Bill 625 will make Saskatchewan the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so.

The trend is to increasingly distance the names from the conditions. The Saskatchewan Council for Crippled Children and Adults, formed in 1950, became, in 1984, the Saskatchewan Abilities Council  – a perfect example of looking at the full half of the glass. The Canadian Association for Community Living is an organization dedicated to advancing human rights of people with intellectual disabilities, and is a member of the international organization Inclusion International. These names go even further  – focusing on the goal rather than the disabilities (but don’t tell you much about them when you come across them in the phone book). Their websites didn't say so, but I suspect these are also recent name changes.

Will these new terms, like intellectually disabled or intellectually challenged, also be deemed offensive at some later date and require yet another euphemistic replacement? Perhaps, following the trend noted in the previous paragraph, “disabilities” will give way to “challenges”. But one thing in their favor is they don’t lend themselves as readily to insults. I can’t quite imagine children taunting each other with “Look where yer goin’, ya challenge!”

26 comments:

  1. Excellent treatment of a touchy subject. You can expect to hear from Kylee-Anne on this.

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  2. Dad's right, you'll hear from me. It's a topic I think about a lot, and I've been a big fan of the "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign (http://www.r-word.org/). The good thing about this campaign is that while it educates people about how harmful the r word can be, it also shows how harmful negatively using any term about people with intellectual disabilities or even any other group of people can be (check out this great ad: http://youtu.be/T549VoLca_Q).

    Unfortunately, even the new euphemisms can be used insultingly. e.g. "What are you, Challenged?" or "What are you, Special?" The insult "Sped" comes from one of those euphemisms: special education. But that's what I like about the non-euphemistic "intellectually disabled" or even better, "people with intellectual disabilities." They seem more plainly factual than euphemistic, and the latter emphasizes the person first rather than the disability.

    Which reminds me of the other good thing about the R-Word campaign. As you point out, "mentally retarded" was introduced as a kinder, euphemistic term to replace the negative (but once neutral) terms "idiot" or "moron." Idiot and moron are still used as insults now, although they no longer have the direct connotation of mental disability. The R-word campaign is seeking to eradicate the negative use of the word "retard" all together. If they were to succeed, "retard" would be used in English once again only to refer to slowness (as it is still used in music, although with the emphasis on the second syllable). Rather than seeking to simply replace the negative word with a more neutral term, they are looking to remove the negative connotation all together.

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  3. By the way, thanks for this post--you must have done a lot of research for it!

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  4. Thanks for the feedback - I was hoping this would initiate a discussion. Thanks Ky for the campaign link - I remember you and your sisters sharing this on FB a few weeks ago but couldn't find it. I want this blog to be educational as well as entertaining. I confess most of the "research" on the R-word came from two pages on Wikipedia, including the reference from Pinker's book (so I hope it's accurate). I hadn't thought of the musical term - so yes we want to preserve that meaning of the word. The only other use of the word I have noted is on the signs as you drive into a small town warning truckers not to use their engine retarder brakes.
    Ky - I like your phrase "people with intellectual disabilities" which focuses on the person not the disability. The same applies to physical conditions, as in "people with diabetes" rather than "diabetics" (to remind doctors that they are treating a person not a disease).

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  5. We have always gone with, 'our son has a chronic case of acute individuality...do you have a problem?'

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  6. Personally, i believe retarded sounds better than challenged... i mean, who wants to have a challenge they can never overcome, that would make me feel awful. Making something "sound better", doesn't mean it is better. I would rather have a medical condition, being retarded that is, then always think i just can't overcome something. The word, "retarded" is the excuse... at least retarded people have an excuse, they are retarded... so what's the rest of the world's excuse? None. They are the real challenged ones.

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  7. Our society has become so fixed on making bad things sound good. What would you rather have, the bitter truth or a sweet lie? I know which one I would pick.

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  8. "Retard" has the infelicitous feature of an -ard ending in common with dastard, bastard...

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=-ard&allowed_in_frame=0

    -ARD
    "also -art, from O.Fr. -ard, -art, from Ger. -hard, -hart "hardy," forming the second element in many personal names, often used as an intensifier, but in Middle High German and Dutch used as a pejorative element in common nouns, and thus passing into Middle English in bastard, coward, blaffard ("one who stammers"), etc. It thus became a living element in English, e.g. buzzard, drunkard."

    I love your blog and just finished reading all entries, so many thanks.

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  9. Thanks Teleophonema for pointing out the significance of the word ending. Glad you found my blog and enjoyed the posts. You read them all? Wow! And thanks for telling me so.

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  10. Give up. No matter what euphemism you use, it will become a playground insult. Besides, it sounds worse when you use euphemisms, because the very use of euphemism indicates shamefulness.

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  11. Perhaps the movement to replace the R word with something more like "intellectual disability" is less a euphemism (using a nicer sounding word for something unpleasant) than it is "more plainly factual than euphemistic" as Ky pointed out above.

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    1. Hi Stan, I found your blog through Google after having this very discussion with some of my Karate students last night. I find the whole "First letter Hyphen word" syndrome fascinating. For example, instead of saying Retard, you say the "R-Word". Everyone does it. If you mean to say retard, say retard. Saying "The R-Word" in my mind is worse. It says to me "I really want to say Retard but am petrified to offend anyone so I will say the R-Word so everyone gets my meaning but I don't actually have to utter the sounds." To me, this is harmful to the entire population. We focus so much on the actual word, but we never strive to correct the underlying problem.

      Having said all that, I must say that your treatment of the subject seems to me to be intellectual and informative without being demeaning. I believe in candor, goodwill and intelligence. Once you have those, you should be able to discuss anything in a positive way. I will check back with you for other posts.

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    2. Thanks for your comments JS - I agree with all your points. I think I was using "R-Word" not because I was afraid to say retard but to gently mock those who are. Similar to the use of "the O-Word" a few years ago when the International Olympic Committee was suing anyone who used the word "Olympic" for any commercial purpose.

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  12. As a disabled person myself, I'm not a fan of political correctness, specifically because euphemisms perpetuate "otherness".

    I have OCD. I hear the word "crazy" used in everyday speech dozens of times per day... and I don't get offended. Why? It's an affliction! There is something derogatory about being "crazy". Likewise, the reason why the euphemism treadmill exists is because mental retardation is an affliction. We need to move beyond Post Modernism, and start thinking about the context of what we're saying.

    If I'm having an episode, and someone who doesn't know me says "Man, you're crazy" I tell them, "Yeah, I have OCD." If they were being malicious, they apologize and we're good. If they were being rhetorical then there's no harm done. Stifling expression doesn't eliminate the thought being expressed. You deal with the person's intentions.

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  13. I find that you did amazing resolution the moment when you picked out this theme of this article of yours here. Do you usually create your blog posts by yourself or maybe you have a partner or a helper?

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  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  15. "But one thing in their favor is they don’t lend themselves as readily to insults. I can’t quite imagine children taunting each other with 'Look where yer goin’, ya challenge!'"

    I question that. In school there were a group of kids who went to "special education" classes. You might think "special education students" doesn't lend itself easily to mockery but you'd be wrong, as "sped" was soon used to describe those students. Kids could easily refer to "challenged students" as "Chals," for example, and everyone would know what was meant.

    Any word can be used negatively or positively. These words only have power over us if we let them.

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  16. "Fool", specifically "natural fool" or "born fool" used to be a legal term. Chapter 9 of the British statute of 1324, cited as 17 Edward II, read as follows:
    "The King shall have custody of the lands of natural fools, taking the profits of them without waste or destruction, and shall find them their necessaries of life, of whose Fee forever the lands be holden. And after death of such idiots, he shall render it to the right heirs, so that such idiots shall not aliene nor their heirs shall be disinherited."
    See also #4 under "fool" in the OED, also cited here.

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  17. Ky and the R-Word.org crowd are the PC Police. Stop assaulting my rights by attempting to eradicate words that you find offensive. Stan is too nice.

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  18. For a long time I have heard people jokingly tell others that that "Aww you are very special" with a very strong emphasis on the 'special'.

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  19. >they don’t lend themselves as readily to insults.

    You must be intellectually disabled if you believe this.

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    1. You are absolutely right! I have had that delusion corrected. Kids (and some adults) will find a way to make an insult from anything that is different.
      Stan

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  20. Ten years ago or so people were trying to bring back "differently abled", a term coined in 1981 apparently. I find that euphemism hard to swallow. It's so far from being straight-forward it sounds ridiculously pretentious. We're approaching Victorian levels of beating around the bush now. People have to realize that society hasn't progressed enough in regards to the stigmas attached to the disabilities themselves, let alone the words for them. Until people stop being creeped out by anybody different, every new term is going to become an insult until we have to invent new words entirely. Or maybe the treadmill is more like a hamster wheel and when it comes full circle in a few centuries people will be "lame" and "moronic" again.

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  21. Euphemisms are commonly used to spare distress or pain but of course there are always exceptions to the rule as in everything. Great post.
    I will link it to my blog today as this is my word of the day.

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  22. FUCKING NIGGER RETARDS!!!!

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  23. This entry MUST have been written by a "special" child. Maybe a SPED-Monkey? Are you a bit challenged? Well, whatever your intellectual challenges, I'll award you the Gold Medal of the Special Olympics for blog postings!!

    I've heard all of the above insults more than a few times, even the current US president referenced the special Olympics in a joking and degrading manner.

    I think the Euphemism treadmill is 100% real, in 50 years all the current terms will have been thrown aside. The only way to avoid this is to be so general and positive that a layman doesn't even know what you are talking about, but then this leads to confusion as well. For example, they renamed the program for gifted children at my local school and no longer call it the "Gifted Program" because people began assuming it was for intellectually challenged kids and children didn't want to go to it for that very reason. Now it is called Apogee.

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