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Will Styler

Post-Doctoral Research Fellow - University of Michigan Linguistics

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2012. See all posts

The R Word and the Euphemism Treadmill

Today, I stumbled upon a very graceful response to Ann Coulter's recent use of the word "retard". It's worth reading, partly just because it's very well done and quite earnest, but what caught my eye as a linguist was the use of the term "the R-word" throughout.

I was aware that there is a growing backlash against the use of "retard" or "retarded" as a put-down or with reference to somebody with a mental or developmental disability (rather than in the "slow somebody's progress" verb sense), but this was the first time I'd ever heard "retard" referred to as "the R-Word". In fact, when I first read the article, I struggled for a few moments to figure out what exactly that "R-word" was (the rest of the letter made that clear).

Although I'd never heard of it, apparently it's in common use. A cursory google revealed r-word.org, a campaign to make people stop using the term, and their online store. Also, the related rwordcounter.org, which counts the number of uses of the R word (they don't specify which version(s)) on Google. In addition, a few different news articles popped up, all using the term to refer to the movement to get rid of "retard".

What's interesting to me is that "retarded" was once an accepted and professional term for a person with mental or developmental disabilities, which has now fallen victim to a phenomenon called pejoration or the "Euphemism treadmill" (a term coined by Steven Pinker). This is the process by which words for taboo or negatively associated subjects (bodily functions, disabilities, death) are born as euphemisms (more polite ways of talking about a subject) and then, gradually, start to aquire negativity from negative use, and eventually are shunned and replaced by a new euphemism.

There's really no better way to see this than to look at usage over time, which, delightfully, we can do using Google's NGram viewer. This is a wonderful tool that searches all the books in Google's Book library for the frequency-of-usefor a given word or phrase, giving us an idea of word usage (in Non-Fiction and Fiction books) over time.

First, let's look at the frequency, from 1900 to today, of the word "retarded" (click to enlarge):

the frequency, from 1900 to today, of the word retarded

So, the term "retarded" was born as a euphemism, seeming to take off around 1950, replacing the recently-shunned "slow". It was used as the accepted term for the concept for many years, until people started using it negatively ("That movie was so retarded!") and it started to pick up a negative connotation.

Once negative use started to set in (~1980, it appears) like so many euphemisms, it fell slowly out of use, and new euphemisms were selected. Here's an NGram, same date scale, of two of those euphemisms, "mentally handicapped" and "developmentally disabled":

the frequency, from 1900 to today, of mentally handicapped and developmentally disabled

Based on their curves, perhaps these terms too have been replaced (either by specific description of the person's situation or by a term I'm not aware of), but regardless, once alternatives were firmly in place, "retarded" became enough of a swear to warrant being referred to as "the R-word" (shown in three different spellings):

the frequency, from 1900 to today, of the R word

It is worth noting, though, that the heights of these three plots are on different scales, and that "the R-word" (and all the variations) are much less common than the others. It's also worth pointing out that this is just looking for the term, not context, so "The antibiotics significantly retarded bacterial growth" would count as a use of the term here.

Nonetheless, by looking at these three NGrams, we see the life and death of a once proud euphemism. From welcome replacement for the old, to stagnant euphemism, to utter shunning and "the R word".

Please don't misinterpret this post. I am quite sympathetic to the campaign's aims, because everybody has the right to be referred to using positive, non-stigmatized language. Unfortunately, though, forcing language change seldom works, and ultimately, all they're really doing is ushering us onto the next euphemism. They may banish "the R-word", but soon enough, you'll walk by a middle school playground and overhear "That movie was so developmentally disabled".

Then, we're right back onto the treadmill again.

Edit: I've just found another excellent post on this subject giving a bit more on-the-ground history of the term and its tabooing. Check it out at the English Cowpath.