Back in the Late Cretaceous, when I was a kid, one of our neighbors had a couple of daughters named Danielle and Darcy. Both girls were several years older than me, and both were (from my perspective) kind of pretty. Danielle didn’t pay me a lot of attention, since she preferred boys her own age (or older … but that’s a different story). In contrast, Darcy liked to hang out with my younger sister and me. Since this was during that brief, idyllic sliver of time between dinosaurs and digital devices, the three of us would spend hours playing freeze tag, red light/green light, and swing the statues on Darcy’s front lawn.
Eventually I caught on to the fact that Darcy was different from the other girls her age. When I finally asked my mom about it, she told me that Darcy was “mentally retarded.”
I know, right? Call a kid that today and you’ll generate shock waves of angst and huffiness amongst the “walking woke.” But that was actually the prescribed term for a “special needs” kid back in the late 70s. “Mentally retarded” was just our Wonder Years way of saying Darcy was developmentally slower than other kids her age. Because “retarded” means “slow,” right? Plain old language. Gotta love it.
Knowing what the deal was with Darcy didn’t change anything, of course. My sister and I still played with her out on the lawn. The only difference was that I had a term I could use to describe how she and I were different.
Fast-forward to last year, when I posted something about a certain politician on social media. I’m not going to name names, but I’ll just say that the guy is a real idiot—a true moron. In my Facebook post, I suggested obliquely that he might possibly be “mentally retarded.” Almost immediately, my words were pounced upon by a much younger (and much “woker”) family member who informed me that:
- We’re not allowed to use the word “retarded” any more to refer to someone with an intellectual disability. (I was totes aware of this already, but I guess she felt I needed to hear it a few more times.)
- We’re also not allowed to call anything else “retarded.” Not animals. Not inanimate objects. Not even politicians. Not even jokingly.
- Also, but we’re no longer even allowed to say the word itself. Apparently, “retarded” is now “the R-word.”
I should point out that we’re not talking about the word “retard.” Like the other major letter-only word (spoiler: it begins with an N) “retard” has always been a pejorative. It’s hateful and mean, and I don’t use it. No—I’m talking about the word that, for decades, was the standard term of art for the intellectually disabled. This word was firmly enshrined in federal laws and regulations until 2010, when “Rosa’s Law” dictated that the federal government grep every instance of “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” and replace it with the more acceptable “intellectual disability” or “individual with an intellectual disability.”
SIDE NOTE: It’s worth pointing out that “idiot” and “moron” were also once perfectly acceptable terms of art for people with intellectual disabilities. I’m not making this up. But since they went out of vogue way before Team America Word Police was even born, we don’t refer to them as “the I-word” and “the M-word.”
Why do I even bring this up?
Because words are tools. As a writer, I refuse to give up any tool for the sake of political correctness. As a writer, I reserve the right to use the R-word. I also reserve the right to use the N-word, the F-word, the G-word, the Q-word, and every other tool at my disposal. In real life, people are hateful, mean, racist, stupid, behind the times, every possible kind of -phobic, and sometimes just thoughtless. They reveal their best and worst character in their speech, in their thoughts, and in their authentic voice.
While it’s probably virtuous to expunge the growing list of letter-only words from our personal speech (and Facebook posts), the minute we give up using these words in our writing is the minute we give up on writing about flawed, genuine people as they really are.
So, okay. It’s “the R-word.” I’ll try not to use the term any more—even in jest. But I’m putting the Word Police on notice that I’m gonna hang onto it for a while yet. Because not everyone has a self-righteous pedant in the family to point out the words they’re not allowed to use. Real people use the word in real speech—a lot.
David Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.
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