Dear Imprudence: Take Your R-Word Somewhere Else

Emily Yoffe has really been striking out in the advice sweepstakes lately, but she redeemed herself in this week’s livechat, when a reader wrote in to say:

Q. Dealing With the R-Word: How can I respond to people who use the word “retard” or “retarded” as derogatory term in my presence? I have two beautiful children (one has autism), but have never used the R-word even before I became a mother. While I realize a vast majority of the time, people who use this term are not referring to people with intellectual disabilities, it still hurts to hear the word since it’s generally used to mean stupid. I have been hearing this word a lot lately—sometimes from younger people, other times from people my age (mid-’30s) or older who throw this word around. When I am in my own home, I just tell the person, “We do not use that word in this house.” When I am at another person’s home, I don’t know what to say, so I keep quiet (even though it doesn’t feel right) or leave. And what about when I’m in a neutral place? By the way, my son is almost always with me and everyone I associate with knows he has autism, but that doesn’t stop people from using the R-word. Please tell me how I can respond when I hear this word used in everyday conversation.

Here’s what Yoffe responded with:

A: You need to say something in as neutral a way as possible. If the word is being used to describe someone with an intellectual disability, you need to say something like, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be insulting. But retarded is an outmoded word that many people find offensive.” Then offer what you prefer as a better term. If it’s being used as a general insult, you should also speak up and explain that word is so hurtful that you’d prefer not to hear it.

On the nose, Prudie. It’s important for the letter writer to not just speak up when it’s used to talk about a human being, but also just generally, to explain that it’s hurtful and has negative associations. I imagine the letter writer is going to get some pushback on that, but a few seeds will be planted, as well, and people might start thinking twice about how they use words like the R-word. A lot of people use exclusionary language out of ignorance and may be unaware that they are hurting people around them, and providing a quick heads up on the matter in a way designed to make confrontation difficult (by making the other person look bad if ou gets confrontational about a perfectly reasonable request) can go a long way to eliminating hateful uses of words like this one.

And, of course, pushback appeared within the livechat itself:

Q. The R-Word: I feel for this woman, but when I buy mulch that retards weeds, do I need to apologize for that? Should we just remove that word from the dictionary?

A: Talking about retarding the growth of weeds is a great way to preserve a useful word.

This is a really common response to discussions about language. The interrogator decides the subject is ‘too sensitive’ and thus deliberately misreads the discussion and the request to stop using a particular word to drag in an unrelated use of a word, sometimes a word that sounds similar, but actually has an entirely different root and origins (although that is not the case with the R-word and ‘retard’ in the sense of ‘flame-retardant’). To me, it reads like an attempt to use the ‘bad word’ as many times as possible in a sanctioned way: ‘But I just want to have a discussion!’

This reaction also raises a fundamental point about our common humanity. When I first started learning about and engaging with exclusionary language (because none of us are born knowing these things, let alone in a language that’s not our first), I was sometimes puzzled about why particular words were being identified as harmful, but the immediacy of the situation struck me. Here was a person, another human being, right in front of me, saying ‘please don’t use this word around me, it hurts me.’ What possible rational response could there be, other than to stop using that word around that person even if I privately disagreed, or to say, ‘I’m sorry this word makes you feel uncomfortable, but I use it to self identify in a reclamatory way, not generally to refer to people or as a pejorative.’

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

2 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: Take Your R-Word Somewhere Else

  1. Was she being sarcastic with that second answer? I’m not sure how I feel about the r-word being used in any context these days. How about “slow the growth”? Is that so hard to say?

  2. I don’t have a problem with the word “retard” itself, but with how it’s used. It’s a perfectly fine word, as long as it’s not being used to insult, demean, or make life unsafe for an entire group of people. To some people, the word “Jew” is a pejorative and is used to insult, demean, and make life unsafe for an entire group, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to use the word that are wholly positive. For instance, I’ve heard people use the phrase “he Jew-ed him down” to mean “he negotiated a good deal,” and that’s clearly beyond the pale. But there are many other uses of the word.

    I think that the second question in the piece was a way of laughing at people who the questioner feels are being “silly” and “too sensitive” about words. I’m not sure it’s possible to be “too sensitive” about words, given that their creative and destructive power, but that’s just me.

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