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So, I was reading something of my grandfather’s which at first really offended me. He wrote about deaf children and language. I stumbled across the word “retarded”. I chuckled, tried to move on, but came back to that. I didn’t feel like crying, I was just…stunned. I had to think though: Now, obviously, he didn’t mean to call me retarded. I mean after all, he’d written his theses in 1968. I wasn’t even born yet! However, I did spark a *conversation on Facebook, between myself and three other people, that I’d like to share.

English: "Retarded Children Can Be Helped...

It was acceptable on a postage stamp. How did the word become so demeaning as it is today?

One of the first things asked of course, was what year the publication was printed.”Bearing in mind that a language is always an inheritance from the past, one must add that the social forces in question act over a period of time. If stability is a characteristics of languages, it is not only because languages are anchored in the community. They are also anchored over time.” (Saussure, 108) I told, and then a discussion sparked about the history. “I learned the terms mildly, moderately and severely retarded when I took my education degree in 1982 – the label was related to IQ score” (Muir) It was a completely acceptable word then, what made it unacceptable? The word “retard” was actually used to replace other words which had been considered vulgar. “In my textbook I believe the terms for “mental retardation ” replaced the older labels of imbecile and idiot – if I remember correctly” (Muir). It wasn’t so much the word itself, as what it stood for that was seen as inappropriate. The DSM is responsible for the discovery and recording of psychiatric conditions. The word “retard” has been debated and challenged because it has been seen as a bad word. That got me to thinking of course, not just about the word retard, but every word. “Who gets to decide what terms are offensive to whom? What makes people censor their language? Words such as ass for example, they were common, but now they’re seen as completely different. How do words change from their original meaning to a new one? Who decides what words are appropriate for everyday conversation, and what gives them the authority to do so? ” (Power)

The conversation was, of course, about the usage of the word retard, but it could be for any ‘swearword’ today. “When a term has moved so far beyond its original meaning as to be derogatory….I would think it’s tied to its use becoming very common and loosely used. The common vernacular for gay people, black people, people of non-caucasian ethnicity, etc. has all changed over time.” (Poirier.) As the meaning of a word changes, so does the information regarding the word. “You have to consider the context and how it is used. Avoid thinking that it was used in the same manner as today – at the time, many factors, including scientific views, affected the usage.” (Gallagher) By using the word “retard” in the modern sense, I took offence. However, Karagianis, when he wrote “the theory that deaf children are temporarily conceptually retarded when compared with hearing children” (Karagianis, i) as being the topic of his study, he wasn’t trying to be mean. He was using a word that was accepted. It was not an insult then, and so when reading it, it should not be treated as a modern text in terms of language, but an outdated one. “Bearing in mind that a language is always an inheritance from the past, one must add that the social forces in question act over a period of time. If stability is a characteristics of languages, it is not only because languages are anchored in the community. They are also anchored over time.” (Saussure, 108) When reading anything, the history of the text and the usage of words has to be taken into account.

So, how does that relate to children’s literature? I’m getting to that. “My theory is that a line is drawn when a term migrates from textbook to schoolyard insult.” (Poirier.) Once words are used to hurt people- that word itself, instead of having meaning, is now stripped of the meaning it previously had, and used in derogatory ways. It no longer matters what the word once was, after it is labelled a “swearword” it is only used and thought of as an insult. It is more common in young adult literature. “I copy Gary’s word over and over- fuckfuckfuckfuck. I remember the first time I ever heard this wonderful word. I must have been eight or nine… Gary’s friend Wayne came to the door. Wayne and a boy named Bruce who went to a different school. Gary sounded so proud when he said he couldn’t go to the ravine with them because he was minding me…I wanted to go…Bruce led the way…Behind him Wayne swung his arms to catch his balance. Bruce yelled, ‘Watch where the fuck you go grabbing me, you faggot dick-head.’ ‘Faggot, faggot, faggot,’ I remember whispering into the crook of my elbow. ‘Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.’ I didn’t know what the words meant, but they felt exciting.” (Stinson, 30-31) She knows that it is a new word, and that it’s probably not a good word. It still feels exciting to Ruby because it’s different from anything she’s heard before- and she heard it from her older brother’s friends, the friends of the person she looks up to. “To enter a peer group, children rally what ever resources are at hand to contribute to the elaboration of games. However, also important is the ideological orientation toward the languages in contact, itself constructed by child peers among themselves, through crossing and defining their own speaking styles. The sociolinguistic and linguistic anthropology studies reviewed document that children, from an early age, manipulate a broad range of linguistic features, using them to enact power, establish positive footing with peers, and articulate norms of the peer group. Developmental differences in sophistication of genres (Blum Kulka et al. 2005) and linguistic features used (e.g., younger children rely more on prosody, whereas older children rely on grammatical and lexical forms; Hoyle & Adger 1998a) are evident; however, from an early age, even as young as the preschool period, children show facility in using these features. By understanding how the linguistic forms that children use are suited to the social goals that they are seeking to accomplish in their peer social worlds, we can understand their communicative and social competence.” (Kyratzis, 642) She learns the words and remembers them because they are part of the language which is accepted in her brother’s community of peers. It has no meaning to her however, and the word, with no context except in the form of an insult, is naturally all that she attributes the words to.

Children use language in the same way that adults do. They can exclude or include people. “Adult-based models of socialization view children as passively “reproducing” adult culture. However, according to recent interpretive approaches to the study of children’s socialization, meaning creation and “interpretive reproduction” (Gaskins et al. 1992, p. 7) are active processes by which children, in their negotiations with other children, “take a variety of stances toward cultural resources- acceding to…playfully transforming, actively resisting (Gaskins et al. 1992, p. 11).” Children are not merely unformed adults (Schwartzman 2001); they reformulate social categories (e.g., friendship, gender) appropriated from the adult culture inways that are sensitive to context (Thome 1993, 2001) and reflective of children’s personalities and momentary goals and agendas in the culture of peers, goals often related to entry into, and achieving power within, peer groups (Corsaro 1985,1997; Goodwin 2001; Hirschfeld 2002;Paley 1992; Thome 2001).” (Kyratzis, 626) Children use language to structure the community. The language has changed, and the context of the words have changed because they need access to language to create relationships and structure their community. “People use their language without conscious reflection, unaware of the laws which govern it.” (Saussure, 106-107) Insults are a way to create relationships-when really thought about, we use insults to show others when we’re angry or sad; or annoyed. With the change of the meaning though, some words have lost their original meaning, and are reduced to just being words which are insults and nothing else. If a word is only a bad word, and ceases to have meaning, it may be used commonly, but only to express anger, frustration, overwhelming emotion, and seen as unsuitable for normal conversation.

It also needs to be said that everybody has power over what words they choose to use and what meaning they have. “A language belongs to all of its users. It is something all make use of every day. A language is something in which everybody participates all the time, and that is why it is constantly open to the influence of all.” (Saussure, 108) As long as enough people use a term- whether it is considered rude or not- the term will still connect to the meaning it holds for the majority of people at the moment, until time when the meaning gradually shifts again. As people use the words, they can assign their own meaning to it. “There is a connexion between these two opposing factors: the arbitrary convention which allows free choice, and the passage of time, which fixes that choice. It is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition, and because it is founded on tradition that it can be arbitrary.” (Saussure, 108) If a word is given a meaning, and the meaning is applied to the word for a long enough time and used by a community of people, the meaning and the word will be connected. Society and history can change a word from a general regarded word used in a thesis into a word that shouldn’t be said- meant as an insult. Are there then, really any “bad” words, or are they all just simply words that have become misused in culturally and historically? I’d like to think it’s the latter. Words have power- they should be used to help, and I’d like to think that any word originally was meant to help, not hurt.

All jokes aside, I have really been wondering: what people control the message? Who decides what words are appropriate or inappropriate? If in the wrong hands, words can be dangerous. There are several words that have been deemed offensive by today’s standards that weren’t in earlier times. Perhaps some of the words we use today will be rude in 20 years time.



IMAGES: (In order of appearance. Everything else in alphabetical order.)

  1. English: “Retarded Children Can Be Helped” United States Postage Stamp, first issued on October 12th, 1974 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  2. http://philosopherpoet.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/tellmywife3.png?w=473&h=399&h=401
  3. http://www.masters.ab.ca/bdyck/Justice/Web%20page/QUOTES/j0309615.jpg


  1. Karagianis, Leslie D. Language as a Mediational Variable in Hearing and Deaf Children. [Toronto]: n.p., 1968. Print.
  2. Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1986. “Excerpts from Course in General Linguistics” in Course in General Linguistics, edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, pp. 8-15, 65-78. 1986. Lasalle
  3. Stinson, Kathy. Becoming Ruby. Toronto: Penguin. 2003. Print.


  1. Daiment, Michelle. “DSM Committee Takes Heat Over ‘Mental Retardation’ Update.” DSM Committee Takes Heat Over ‘Mental Retardation’ Update. Disabilityscoop, 29 May 2012. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.
  2. happyambergilmore. “A Word Gone Wrong”. Web log post. CSU CO301D WordPress, 7 March 2013, Web. April 1 2013
  3. Nolan, Megan. “Let’s All Be Epic Bitches and Cunts.” Weblog post. Badger Thoughts. WordPress, 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2013. .
  4. Robshaw, Brandon. “Frustrating.” Web Log Post Brandon Robshaw and the English Language. WordPress April 6 2013, Web. April 6 2013.
  5. Unknown “Are you Retarded?” The use of Clinical Jargon in Slang.” Weblog Post. Inside Out WordPress. 7 April 2013. Web. 23 April 2013.


  1. Kyratzis, Amy. “Talk and Interaction Among Children and the Co-construction of Peer Groups and Peer Culture.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 625-49.JSTOR. Web. 29 Mar. 2013.


  1. Muir S, L Poirier, S Gallagher, and J Power. “Never thought I’d see the word “retarded” in a university paper-in a theses- In my Granddad’s vocabulary. Must find out more about the usage of this word….” 26 Mar 2013. N.p., Online Posting to Facebook. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

*Permission was obtained through Facebook before quoting the people in the conversation. Last names have been used, first initials have been used to protect any privacy concerns they may have.)