Removing the ‘R’ word from our vocabulary

The war of words in American culture could be the topic of a great book and probably already is a book somewhere on the stacks of some college library.

The history of the English language in America is one in which acceptable words become offensive in less than a generation, spawning new descriptions and new categories.

Such has been the case with the races, where ‘colored’ was once an acceptable reference to black people – though it obviously no longer is acceptable. That term was replaced with black, and now, black is being eclipsed by more descriptive terms like ‘African American.’ And as we all know, ‘colored’ was the more palatable replacement word for something far more offensive, something we now only refer to as the ‘n-word.’

Such politically correct speech has even been extended to how people read, whereas ‘struggling readers’ are now referred to ‘striving readers.’

Nothing, though, in the debate over words is quite as hot as the discussion over the words ‘retarded’ or ‘retard.’ Such a discussion has been had for several years in Revere with the League of Special Needs – and to a successful end – but it seems that the rest of the country is just now logging onto the debate.

“I think the word should be banned from the dictionary or from any usage,” said Joanne Stack, president of the Revere League for Special Needs, formerly the Revere League for the Retarded. “It actually refers to something mechanical. These children are made of human parts; they are not machines. They’re more normal than most everyday people, really. I think it’s a shame for them to be labeled with that term. That’s exactly why I had our name changed from ‘retarded’ to ‘special needs.’”

For years, people have used the words ‘retarded’ and ‘retard’ as an offensive slang term and even as a clinical term.

Gradually, that is becoming unacceptable in our daily speech, as it is being viewed as demeaning to those with mental and physical disabilities. More and more, it is being referred to as the ‘r-word.’

The debate was sparked nationally last year when the movie ‘Tropical Thunder’ debuted, complete with a scene using the r-word several times in a very offensive way. That started a boycott of the movie by the Special Olympics organization.

The debate got more serious when President Barack Obama told a late night talk show host that he bowled like he was someone in the Special Olympics.

Then, last week, the r-word was all but obliterated from official speech when presidential advisor Rahm Emmanuel referred to a group of liberal lawmakers as a bunch of “[expletive deleted] retards.”

Professor Rod Kessler, a Salem State educator who has studied English language usage for years, said that it is just the natural ebb and flow of language in America.

“It’s interesting in language because at some point we find a word offensive and we start out by changing it to something else,” he said. “Then that word gets colored with the same negative association and we move on and change again. It’s a never-ending process.

“When language changes, it’s fine,” he continued. “It’s just that in between periods you have people getting offended and upset over conflicting uses. The history of the English language is a history of people getting angry over usage…Typically, older folks who don’t like the change complain and rail and then they die and the language moves on…As for the debate over retarded versus other words, that’s what is happening right now.”

As to the words ‘retarded’ and ‘retard,’ Kessler said that in 1943, the word wasn’t even used to describe people at all. It was more of a mechanical term.

Believe it or not, before using the r-words, the preferred terms were ‘feeble-minded,’ ‘moron’ or ‘half wit.’

In 1992, Kessler said the terms began to be viewed as offensive, but only if used to describe someone. However, the 2008 edition of the usage dictionary deemed the entire term offensive no matter what the use.

In Revere, where those with special needs have been treated with special care and respectful attention for decades, those words have pretty much fallen out of usage already. Most trace that back to about 10 years ago when the League changed it’s name.

“They used ‘retarded’ because that’s the word they used when the League was started a long time ago,” said Al Terminiello, a volunteer at the League for more than 40 years. “The people running it never had a problem with it, but the newer parents started backing away from it…They wanted ‘special needs’ because it encompassed everybody and it also got rid of that stigma that had started with ‘retarded,’ because ‘retarded’ was being used as more of a put down.”

Stack said the change in their language coincided with the change in the English language. When people started using ‘retarded’ as an insult, or a derogatory term, she said it was time to change.

“Nowadays, I think the word should never be spoken out of anyone’s mouth no matter what they’re describing because it hurts the kids,” said Stack. “They were so happy when we changed the name. We had a celebration because they were so happy.”

Superintendent Paul Dakin said the schools do not approve of the word, whether it’s uttered in the hallways or used in professional discussions.

“It’s totally unacceptable,” said Dakin. “I don’t hear the word much anymore. We don’t use it in our educational jargon at all. I can’t remember anyone using it. When I was young, we might have used it as the ultimate insult. I don’t think they do that anymore.”

Terminiello said he also doesn’t hear the r-words around Revere as much, perhaps indicating a cultural change here that hasn’t yet permeated other parts of the country, or even the White House.

“I think the word should be eliminated or it should have less usage,” he said. “I’ve noticed, though, over the last four or five years the teen-agers or wise guys – the ones who used it so much in a negative way – don’t say it anymore. That doesn’t seem to be what they say now.”

Dakin agreed, “It’s in the world of words, but I don’t hear it that much here. I think it’s much less used than when I was a kid and the reason it is used less is because people and kids with disabilities are more accepted than they were…Kids see through those things more than my generation. Despite being thought of a gangsters because their pants are hanging down, kids today are more sensitive to the needs of others.”

As for Emmanuel and his off-base comment, there seems to be no quick move at the League to give him a pass on his poor choice of words.

“It’s a shame a grown man can say that,” said Stack. “I don’t know how he got to such a high office…Shame on this man and may he live to be 100 and grow a long, long beard.”

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