Word Up (and out)

By Jamie Neben and AC Smith


It seems like I’m in a constant struggle when it comes to using proper language these days.    The trouble isn’t due to having a limited vocabulary.  Instead, many words have changed over time, or they take on certain meanings that were not originally intended.   And every so often, words are used in such a negative context that to even be associated with them becomes hurtful and/or offensive to somebody.  We can add another entry to that category:  retarded.

Part of my trouble is that I’m not usually one to sugar-coat things.  If I’m overweight, I’d rather you just call me fat instead of “height-weight disproportionate.”  The late, great George Carlin would dedicate whole routines to his distaste for euphemisms.  But just because I don’t always go along with the growing politically correct culture doesn’t mean there’s any excuse for causing harm against other individuals through my words.  Whether intended maliciously or not, that’s exactly what’s happening in this case.

One key issue with the word “retarded” is that a whole group of people become denigrated.  This isn’t a situation where you tell them to just get over it.  Those who actually have intellectual disabilities were, not so long ago, treated as less than equal.  They were often neglected, abused, sterilized, unnecessarily committed to state hospitals, or made to live in horrible conditions.  I’m afraid there may still be instances of that still happening today here and there.  It’s no surprise when I heard that many disabled people and their families are deeply offended by “the R word.”  That’s a good enough reason for me to stop using it. 

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel recently got himself in hot water when he called some liberal activists “(f***ing) retarded.”   He has since apologized and vows to eliminate the R word from all federal language.  As a country, it might be difficult to do likewise in everyday speech, especially when it’s used so casually.  But we have to try.  Most of us wouldn’t purposefully belittle another person based on something like skin color.  Likewise, calling someone a retard is also greatly insensitive to people that have suffered in more ways than one.   Let’s demonstrate through our language that everyone deserves respect as human beings. 


I don’t want to deliberately offend anybody.  Some people use the word “retarded” to victimize, and that’s not right.  However, the word is in the dictionary, and as long as it’s used properly to identify a medical condition, I have no problem with it.  However, my feeling is that it’s not usually used that way.

I am actually much more offended by the first word that Rahm Emanuel used.  No one bothers to acknowledge that word.  If we are going to be sensitive about words that have true meaning, we should clean up the profanity before anything else.  I am 100% offended by the first word and 1% by the second.  Unfortunately, it’s all over television now.  It didn’t used to be that way.   Now it seems everyone talks like that. Some teenagers were at my house recently, and one of them let the “F word” slip.  My neck just about jerked off my head.  Thank goodness my daughter stepped in, and in a nice way, let them know it wasn’t appropriate. 

So, while we can try to make improvements in how we communicate, let’s clean up the bad language first.  It’s a hundred times worse.


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6 thoughts on “Word Up (and out)

  1. As a sibling of an actual diagnosed “Mentally Retarded, schitsophrenic”, I would cringe at the thought of another student using the “R” word, and being young myself I would let them know that she was “Slow in some ways, but absolutely not less” I grew up with children taunting my dear sister, and I could see the pain it caused her, she would not always act out to the person who threw the slander, don’t know why, but if you caught her on a bad day and used that word you may find your head bashed into the cement repeatedly, until an adult or my older brother would pull her off. Thankfully we always walked home with her, to help her understand that the rules of society do not accept that. She was never violent towards me, but remembers one time biting me and appologizes yearly, ths was 30 some years ago… I have always loved my sisters strength in happiness and silliness, and have never thought anything less of her, she has taught me so much about my son Logan with Autism, and they have an unbelievable bond for as little as they have seen eachother. I believe my sister was given the “R” diagnosis because they did not see the full picture back then, and am not sure she was ever completely evaluated.

    Words hurt, people who use these words need to re-evaluate there own thoughts and wonder what it would feel like to hear that they are fat, gross, smelly, ugly, etc. but as far as I am concerned no one neeeds to live one more day hurting and taunting people they love or do not know at all.

    Update of my older sister: She lives on her own with trainers that stay with her 24/7, she has had a say in her Individual living plan, and the kicker is that she is in charge, she has it written, signed, and sealed that she is able to go to lunch 7 days a week, with her Trainer. Is allowed to have friends come over, eh em, call first, sometimes she choses not to answer the phone:) In all my sister is like a Teenager and will probably always be, I think thats a wonderful outlook on what some may use the “R” word on when it is in all actuallity a “Functional lifestyle” that makes her life happy. I am proud to have a sister wth such tenacity that nothing or nobody is going to tell her that she is anything but a wonderful god given gift to society.

  2. AC – you commented that “I don’t want to deliberately offend anybody.” A few sentences later you acknowledge that the word in question is used in an offensive manner more often than it is used properly. So knowing that using the word will offend people, and knowing that there are more appropriate/ less offensive words available, why would you continue to use this word?

    -Melissa’s Husband (dragged into this against his will)

  3. Quickly I want to say to Cady that I did read about the “Cuss Free Week” in California. I will have to say that it is the best effort that I have heard of to rid (what I call) useless language. I didn’t mention it because I would like to see how it goes first. Now that I’ve a couple days to observe the results, I will go back to not saying anything about it. It was not promoted very well if you ask me. Hopefully, next year we can do a better job.
    Thank you for getting the information for people outside of California.

    Secondly I would like to thank Robert Lake for contributing to “Waves of Gray!” website. If I am correct to understand that you left controversial writings out in order to make sure you weren’t being too offensive. I say, this is the forum to speak freely but I understand if you do not feel comfortable right now. If that is true, you have just showed a great part of your heart and Melissa has a good man. Thanks for being there and not running away (like some men do) when there are challenges with raising children. I pray only the best for you two and continued strength not only to help your family, but also other families who may not know you two personally.
    Melissa’s articles are very much appreciated.

    Finally, to hopefully address both Robert and Melissa Lake, I think there are areas of agreement that we have but I think you do not think I go far enough.
    Yes, I do believe many people (especially kids) use the R-word in putting down someone. I notice many adults use the R-word to put down (mainly) themselves and too many times to put down other adults when debating with them. Those types of usage are wrong to us.

    Here is where we differ.
    I usually have a habit of addressing the principles of the issues.
    No one should have anything bad coming from their mouths, but we do it to ourselves and we do it to others. If we really pay attention, we will be astonished on how much negative talk we produce than positive and I am not talking about political or debating what is right or wrong.

    So the joust of what I want to address deals with the true meaning of the words we use.
    For example, many blacks did/do not like being called Negro. I did not mind when it was used in the right context and tone. I knew when someone was using it improperly, but there were instances that the word was used properly.

    Now there is another word that was used frequently as little as 50 years ago and the meaning was improper. Now a days, that word is used improperly (in my opinion) by mostly Blacks thinking they have a pass to use it because everyone should know that they do not mean it derogatorily. Now even that word may have a proper meaning to it if it was pronounced correctly with a long “I” sound. There is actually a country in Africa with that name and if I was from there, someone may call me that in a proper way.

    Now I believe many families are affected by a relative who has mental challenges. I have a cousin who is functional (but has always been dependent) and a niece who would love to be even half as functional as my cousin. I do not know why, but I have used the words “brain retardation” for my functional cousin and I always state that my niece “brain is underdeveloped”. If you were to look up the R-word (without the “ed” added to the end), the definition (to me) is pretty accurate and not degrading. There is a way to use the word properly and that is what I would like to teach.
    If we keep trying to fight unwanted fires instead of dealing with the proper ways to avoid the improper fires, we will be frustrated until the end of time.
    There are actually proper ways to use words that are in our standard english dictionary. The F-words (among some others) are not some of them.

  4. AC,

    I know that profanity is a big issue for you, and what you said in your comment makes it clear that you don’t take this subject lightly. Mental retardation is a valid condition. However, to use “retarded,” even without intended offense, is still offensive.

  5. AC,
    Thank you for your response, and understanding that this affliction is not something to take lightly, I respect this site and would never use or even think to call you a name other than your given name, I may use something such as a tall black man, as you look much taller than I am and I am not even sure I would use black as there are only 2 of you that I was addressing, and you both have names!

    I have never known anything other than living with Autism, even though my sister was unproperly diagnosed with M R, stuck in a class room with several age groups, until she was approx. 12, then my parents sent her to a group home very far away, she comes home for holidays now but for many years was unable to, due to my mothers schedule. So phone calls were our connection. I guess what I am trying to say is that god had his hand in my life to be an advocate for children and adults alike, to love, protect and respect them. And then ‘Bam I am blessed with 2 boys on the autism spectrum and a daughter with dyslexia. So if I get a little passionate about hearing the ‘R’ word, I believe I have good reason.

    Thank you for your nice comments about my posts, and my husband, that is always nice to hear. Maybey one day we should hear about why Men leave when the going gets tough and especially with Special Needs children who can use all the help they can get.

    As for cussing, ugh, I sure wish there was a pill for that, I find myself using it less now, but it tastes so bad on ones mouth, and the words stick like nothing else. I wish I could remember exactly where I heard this but I will do my best to tell you a short lesson filled story I try and go to when I am fustrated. (hopefully I don’t slaughter it to bad) 🙂

    …this boy was outside with his father and dropped a tool on his foot, he yelled out a profanity as that was his way of releasing his anger, this went on for some time, so the father told him that for every swear word he used he needed to go hammer a nail in this fence, the boy was irritated at that thought but did as he was told, a few weeks later the father sat him down and they looked at that fence full of nails, and then the father said “go pull out all of those nails, and drop em in this bucket”, needless to say it took forever, but by dawn the boy was done. The father picked up the nails put them aside and said “son, look at that fence” as the boy looked at the fence he seen it was all tattered and torn up by the nails, and the father said “when you use those words against someone or around someone, they leave a hole in that persons thinking and feelings”…The boy still had issues with anger but found different ways of dealing with it, a lesson well learned!

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