On the use and power of the word retard

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, W.B. Yeats


I want to try to explain what happens when I hear people throw the word retard, or retarded, around. I’ll draw on my special powers. I won’t try to judge or harangue or cajole, just explain as best I can.

When people I know use the word, it’s usually the put-down that signals the end of argument, heated or otherwise.

Can’t take it any further with you, retard.

What are you, retarded or something?

You’re such a retard.

In 99.9% of cases they’re not thinking of my son, who actually is retarded, judging by certain societal and medical barometers. (Hmmm.) In fact they’d most likely be horrified to take their words to that conclusion.

I don’t have that luxury. My mind instantly goes there, because I already know that that is the only logical conclusion. The absolute, only one. Where else could it possibly go? Think about the word. Your intended context is only one facet of it, but who your utterance may attach to, once it’s made, is entirely beyond your control. I didn’t, once upon a time, need to consider that, but those words, whether you mean them or not, whether you’re furious with someone or are just being flip with your friend, will always lead back to my son Jacob. And because he is retarded (by some standards, as we all are by some standards), he will not be as well able to defend himself from the accusation of being so, whether through someone’s careless word, or someone’s hate-filled one.

I mention this to you because it is important to me, and so are many of you. I need you to know that you can hurt me this way, and I know that you will not mean to. Some time back I didn’t think it would, but now with each mention in my ear, retard tears a piece of me. I want to grab people, connect and have my feeling flood their bodies. It does not matter that you did not mean it or you cannot feel it or want to counter me with your no doubt well meant points about political correctness. Those who know me know that I am politically incorrect, whatever the fuck that means. Because words have power. I have no idea how powerful this word will be to Jacob, and as yet, from the safety of cute two year old-ness, he’s relatively untouched. But that is changing a little bit every day, as the defences of cuteness give way to coarser features, to imperfect speech and a lack of social fine tuning. The world, with its retarded ways, is moving in.

I know I won’t turn the tide. It will not stop. It’s much more ingrained as an idiom in the US than on this side of the Atlantic, possibly because we have so many rich Irish put-downs, but nevertheless it has a place in the lexicon here too and it won’t be shifting any time soon, I believe. And I’m not addressing the hate use of the word. All of those folks stopped by when we had our heated debate about Tropic Thunder last year. And most of them were binned because they were reta- oops! Close one.

No, I’m talking about the simply careless use of it by people I respect. I’m not going to pull any of you up on it individually. It’s actually not my place. I hope you see it here and, if I’ve managed to explain myself, maybe you’ll think about it. Not just for Jacob’s sake, but for his Dad’s, and his Mum’s, and his brothers’ too.

It hurts. That’s just the way it is.


There’s a petition here if you’re the petition-inclined type.