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 to do so. Canada
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!”