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Linguistic’s Final Research Paper

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There are some minor focus/organizational flaws in this paper, but the first three paragraphs about the OED’s definitions of “retard” are very interesting–check it out if you guys have a minute. Have a good break!

The Evolution of “Retard”

Language changes.  We assign different meanings to words everyday by shifting a word’s connotation—it is expected.   But layering a word’s semantics creates a tension between the denotation and connotation of a word because a word can then encompasses a group of ideas, things, or people, whether it be depicted as pejorative or ameliorative.  This tension manifests within both reference frames because denotation, a word’s literal definition, and connotation, the implications given to a word by past and present culture, form a semantic relationship that reflects the values of its community.  Because of this relationship, and because semantic shifts are inevitable, words are used differently in different contexts.  The term retard has gone through semantic shifts, pejoration, and generalization, and, because of its often slang use, misrepresents the neurodiverse community.

According to the OED, the term “retard” was originally used as a verb.  “Retarder,” the word’s first form, immerged from 12th century Old French as “to put off, delay (something), or to hesitate” (The Oxford English Dictionary).  The verb had temporal value, as in to delay an original point in time for a later point in time.  Not until the 13th century did the verb begin to refer “to slow[ing] something down, to delay or slow down the course or progress (of something),” or to “go more slowly” (The Oxford English Dictionary).  These definitions refer to the act of delaying time—it is not defined by the sense of something that is delayed. If it were, of course, that implication would be the word’s connotation, not what the word denotes.  As a verb, it was not until 1344 until it was denoted as “to be slow, or to act slowly,” which further shifted by 1690 as “to be delayed” (The Oxford English Dictionary).

Formed in the early 16th century, the noun “retard” avoided referring to the body or development for over a hundred years.  The etymology of the noun “retard” traces its origin to 1629 French.  The French defined “retard” as meaning a “delay” that eventually came to mean the “retardation (of the movement of a body)” in 1752 (The Oxford English Dictionary).  Because the noun form of the word was created close to the same time as its verb’s semantic shift—from “to delay” to “to be slow”—one can infer that the noun’s origin of “delay,” if it does not share the same meaning shift of its verb, shares a same pejorative connotation.  Regardless, a noun formation formed after centuries of using its verb only proves that the word “retard” once denoted an action that then came to denote a specific object (and/or person).  This is especially important because, as per 19th and 20th century medical classifications, “retard” was never, nor is it defined, as medical.  The noun is currently defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the fact of being slowed down or delayed with respect to action, progress, or development […]”  In regards to its educational connotation, “retard” denotes “a child whose educational progress or level of attainment has fallen behind that expected for his or her age” (The Oxford English Dictionary).

The current connotations of “retard” are unfortunately the most used.  The educational connotation includes the failing attempts of attainment experienced by what should be an equally intelligent person.  This reference disables the person or object the noun is classifying, and “is generalizing not just to a group that shares a particular impairment, but to all people with significant limitation due to impairment—people with disabilities” (Anderson 1043).  This is especially pejorative to the cognitively impaired community because it reduces their neurodiversities to a word that denotes and connotes a slowness, as opposed to their brains working in contrast to what is defined as normalcy.  These generalizations or phrases “like ‘wheelchair bound,’ ‘retarded,’ or ‘deaf and dumb’ are no less oppressive than the lack of physical access since they mark how certain bodies [or minds] are interpreted and read” (Davidson 119).  Davidson’s article “Universal Design—The Work of Disability in an Age of Globalization” highlights this verbal oppression and how the government can assist its use’s victimization:

“Much of [his article] is reinforced by language in the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) that recognizes that a person in a wheelchair becomes disabled when he or she encounters a building without elevators or when a sight impaired person tries to use an ATM machine without Braille signage.  It also recognizes that one may be equally disabled by social stigma” (Davidson 119).

Semantic shifts are governed by society and furthermore shed light to our societal values and structure.  As Davidson continues to argue, this “social model locates disability not in the individual’s impairment, but in the environment—in social attitudes, institutional structures, and physical or communicational barriers that prevent full participation as citizen subject” (Davidson 119).  Calling a person a “retard” or referring to something or someone as “retarded” uses this social model and the act of generalization.  This process of categorizing persons with disabilities creates “the development of specialized treatments and residential and educational services, but also [establishes] and [reinforces] notions of the boundaries between normalcy and aberrance in Western society” (Braddock, and Parish 13).

Not only has the term “retard” been used to classify and/or categorize the neurodiverse, it is also used as a slang term.  The OED’s current slang definition, or also described as the colloquial definition, defines “retard” as “a person (or occasionally a thing) regarded as being mentally or physically deficient, stupid, or incompetent.”  This definition, and its overuse, has the most pejorative connotation regarding the cognitively impaired community because it undoubtedly attempts to “arrange people in ways that are socially and economically convenient to the society” (Linton 9-10).  We see this “convenience” in generalizing within the current medical terms used to label autism and asperger syndrome. Because autism and asperger’s fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity, it is often generalized by the word “retard.”  Because of the stigmas attached to the term “retard” and the similar stigmas attached to autism and asperger’s, the Diagnostic & Statistic Manuel of Mental Disorders is (ironically) generalizing the two terms by embedding them both in the Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Reassigning meaning—or a word’s semantics—is an attempt to “wrest control of the language from the previous owners, and reassign meaning to the terminology used to describe disability and disabled people” (Linton 9).

Because the term “retard” is unjust to the cognitively impaired community, Simi Linton—as well as other allies who are attempting to create a consciousness regarding the language used to depict the disabled community—wants a “new language.”  This new language “conveys different meanings, and, significantly, the shifts serve as metacommunications about the social, political, intellectual, and ideological transformations that have taken place over the past two decades” (Linton 9).  Though this modification is specific to disability words, some shift is expected in all words.  Every word—whether through linguistic processes such as amelioration, pejoration, narrowing, etc.—has connotatively altered from its origin.  Not only is it expected, it is inevitable. However it is up to the community to replace generalizing and pejorative terms with applicable, appropriated terms that accurately depict the neurodiverse and physically impaired communities.

Works Cited

Anderson, Jill C. “Just Semantics: The Lost Readings of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Cover story).” Yale Law Journal 117.6 (2008): 992-1069. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 8 Dec. 2010.

Braddock, David, and Susan Parish. “An Institutional History of Disability.” Handbook of Disability Studies. (2008): 11-68. Print.

Davidson, Michael. “Universal Design; The Work of Disability in an Age of Globalization.” Disabilities Studies Reader. 2. (2006): 117-128. Print.

Linton, Simi. “Reassigning Meaning.” Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. (1998): 8-33. Print.

“retard” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 Apr. 2000

Written by Matthew

December 9th, 2010 at 11:54 am