Saturday, November 18, 2006

Retardation: A Linguistic Case Study

I possess a very good (actually the correct word would be "freakish") memory, I have an interest in linguistics, and I've been in several different environments in my life. Therefore, I've noticed and paid attention to trends and variations in language usage. I'm particularly interested in linguistic borders: words that straddle the line between offensiveness and acceptance, and how that determination is negotiated.

Language has always made such an impression on me that I could actually tell you the first time I have heard many words, or heard certain words used in certain contexts. I remember the first time I was conscious of the word "suck" being used as an adjective. I was in third grade, probably 1986, and somebody said that the 49ers "sucked." (Clearly not true, though with an ailing Joe Montana they were inferior to the New York Giants that year). I was able to pick up from the context what that word meant, though it struck me as rather strange. I pictured Randy Cross sucking on a lemon and having a sour look on his face. (If you are curious why I would picture Randy Cross and not Montana or Rice, the answer is that I had a Randy Cross football card. When I thought of the 49ers I pictured my Randy Cross football card. The Seahawks were represented by Joe Nash and the Patriots by Steve Grogan).

It seems rather likely that the usage of "suck" as an adjective has a vulgar etymology, and I can remember that at one time newspapers used to substitute the word "stink" in parenthesis whenever it was part of a quote. Now it is so accepted that I can't imagine anyone censors it anymore.

While the word "suck" has carved itself a niche in the vernacular, the word "gay" as a synonym for dumb has receded. When I was in middle school in the early 90s, the word "gay" was not used to feminize, and was rarely directed at individuals. It was used to almost as a substitute for the word "retrogressive," as in "This project is better suited for third graders. It is so gay." (There was always a need for a modifier like "so". Nothing was simply "gay.") The last I heard the word used in this way was in college in 1998 (I told you I had a freakish memory). Then a funny thing happened. The word was re-born as a casual pejorative. When I student taught high school in spring 2002, it was a common insult, usually hurled from one friend to another. Of course, the word was used a pejorative for decades before that, but what struck me at the time was that the pejorative didn't require any context. There was no gravitas behind the accusation. It was almost like in Shakespeare's plays when characters accuse each other of being cuckolds for no real reason other than to insult them.

Obviously, even the casual use of this word is highly politicized and the 2002 usage in a rural Wisconsin high school could be seen as a reaction to the increased prevalence of gay culture in the mainstream media. In retrospect, the shift in the word usage from synonym for "retrogressive" to casual pejorative roughly coincides with Ellen DeGeneres portraying the first homosexual main character on a TV show. However, the culture has policed the use of the word, and use in either of the above contexts in the mainstream today is clearly taboo.

I wish it were so easy to locate the stimulus for another word that has dwelled on the border of common usage and offensiveness. When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, one didn't think twice about calling someone a "retard." I didn't realize until recently, though, that as I matured into adolescence, the word receded. I don't know how much cultural sensitivity played in its decline, but can't imagine it had that much of an effect (could Corky really have had that much impact?) A more likely explanation is that the word stopped being used as an official designation of mentally disabled people. As official use of the word was curtailed, unofficial abuse of the word followed suit.

As I find myself once again in a high school environment, I still don't hear people using the word as a pejorative, but I do hear the word "retarded" being uttered quite often as an adjective. And its not always being used flippantly or casually; sometimes its being used earnestly to describe thought processes that are unsound (i.e. "I'm sorry. That was really retarded of me"). Apparently, the Black Eyed Peas smash hit "Let's Get it Started" was originally called "Let's Get Retarded." How is it that this word was once common, faded from usage, and is now re-born, albeit in a slightly different form?

Here is one theory: At one time the terms "moronic," "idiotic," and "imbecilic" were used to categorize mentally disabled people. Now they are used solely to describe the mental functions of the non-disabled. Could it be that the word "retarded" is headed down that same path? Were the last fifteen years or so enough of a "buffer zone" to cause a cultural lag that enables people to no longer associate the word with people who have actual mental disabilities?

Will the word "retarded" go the way of "suck" and permeate the boundary of acceptability, or will it be loaded down with political connotations, such as in the case of the word "gay"? It looks like it could go either way.

8 Comments:

Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

I got all excited when I thought I knew who Joe Nash was, but then I realized I was thinking of Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you suck

-H

11:32 AM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

Heidi hallucinates aliens.

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm retarded. i usually say though 'i suck'.

-h

11:34 AM  
Anonymous nWo 4 life said...

did hupf say the 49ers sucked?

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

babys suck.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

like, totally

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

people suck on popsicles.

11:36 AM  

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