Dirty Words II: The “r-word”

(continued from yesterday)

There were some scientific (and pseudoscientific) studies of intelligence in the nineteenth century, but we should view the science of intelligence as primarily a twentieth-century phenomenon. Any nascent science needs a terminology, and naturally scientists at the beginning of that century had to come up with technical words to describe, among other things, people of below-average intelligence. Rather than using the prejudicial vocabulary of the past (“simpleton”; “dullard”), psychologist Henry Goddard proposed the neutral, clinical-sounding terms: “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot.”

These don’t sound like neutral terms to us, but that’s not really Goddard’s fault. I want to make this clear, because if what you’re taking away from this is “a horrible scientist decided to insult people by calling them morons” the rest of this essay is going sound really weird to you. The point is that the word “moron” was not originally an insult. Goddard straight-up invented it (from cromulent Greek roots) so it was literally without English connotation when he first used it. The point is, he was trying to speak about something that is difficult to talk about, and he did so by creating a precisely defined scientific vocabulary. Neither Stimpy nor Prince Myshkin is an idiot, because an idiot has an IQ below 25. We, meaning everyone else, took his terms and ran with them, and now in common parlance an imbecile is one of the Three Stooges and a moron is Lisa Simpson when she doesn’t know about the food chain.

All of this semantic appropriation happened with little or no regard for the people these words were originally referring to. Who made“moron” a mean word? We made“moron” a mean word. Eventually we needed a term to refer to mentally disabled people that would be less prejudicial and loaded than the available choices (“idiot,” etc.). Sensitive academics put their heads together and coined a new word.

Look, I’m not being sarcastic here. Goddard was a eugenicist and I assume he was kind of an a-word, but by the 1950s and 1960s we had nice people with charity in their hearts trying to come up with a neutral word for a concept that they needed to talk about. What they came up with is the r-word, and it is, like the road to h-word, the product of good intentions. Please remember it was intended to be a neutral term: it literally just means “slow,” or “delayed.”

We have really short memories, and we tend to assume that whatever we feel or believe RIGHT NOW is what we’ve always felt and believed, so it bears repeating and demonstrating that a few decades ago the r-word was so far from being taboo that it was the P.C. option. Google search the r-word in Books, and the top hit is a volume titled [b-word] Are You [r-word]? by Carlos J. Lee. Limit your search to the 1960s and the top hit is Administrating Classes for the [r-word]; to the ’50s and the top hit is A Curriculum Guide for Teachers of Mentally [r-word] Pupils. That’s a far cry from the modern [b-word] Are You [r-word]?!

Those older titles (check and you’ll see more like them) are revealing: these are books for teachers. The r-word was a term of pedagogy, the way “enrichment” used to be, or “phonics.” Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, what we might now call a branch of special education was primarily called education for the mentally r-word, and your teacher Miss Grundy could say this without flinching. No one was offended.

There were advantages to this situation. Quick! Without offending anyone, what do you call…those people. A series of constantly shifting circumlocutions that may or may not involve the odious word “challenged” are your best guess. I’ve fallen back on “mentally disadvantaged,” but I don’t know if that’s the best term. Remember that whatever term you settle upon will change in a couple of months. The r-word had a 40-year reign.

So what happened? Everything I have written so far is more-or-less verifiable, but I’m going to have to speculate here; that’s always dicey, but I don’t think these are very wild speculations.

The r-word was once used exclusively by teachers, but teachers spend a lot of time around students. And students started using the word, primarily about each other. Children love to insult their friends and classmates (citation needed), and long before they realized they could call their friends“gay” they knew they could call their friends r-word. Teachers hate this stuff! I had a sixth-grade teacher who tried to taboo the words “shut up,” a plan that gave her plenty of opportunities to punish children but wasn’t very persuasive outside her classroom—because everyone in America says “shut up” all the time. Kids call each by all sorts of names, but it’s hard to taboo the words “ugly” or “fat” because these words are everywhere; you can make the act of insulting or teasing an offense, but you cannot taboo the word itself, and so the offense is weakened.

(To test whether the offense is weakened without a taboo word, try this experiment: have your child say to a friend, while a teacher watches, “You are very ugly,” and then “You are a f-wordin’ s-word head” and see which insult brings more hot water.)

So teachers had an incentive to make words like “ugly” taboo—but no power to do it. But there was a word that was still primarily used in academic contexts, and less often in the daily speech of most Americans, but which was still used pejoratively, and this they had both the incentive and the power to taboo. Of course they did it!

You may be tempted to say here something like: “Of course the r-word used to not be taboo; but language changes.” This is exactly the wrong thing to say! Language does not just change, like the weather. WE CHANGE LANGUAGE. Language is changed by humans.

Let’s repeat that: words do not spontaneously become taboo; they are made taboo by the deliberate actions of people, and of course people usually do things because of a perceived benefit to themselves.

I think we tend to have a naive belief that the process goes like this:
1. a word is offensive and that hurts people,
2. good people step in and save the day by campaigning for that word to be tabooed, and
3. we all come around eventually and agree.
This is a broad enough process that it can cover many situations (for example, 150 years ago, people used to use the word “stallion” in front of ladies making them faint, until good people stepped in, etc.). But starting with “a word is offensive” begs the question. Remember, the r-word was not offensive. It was designated as offensive.

Yes, I am aware that this caters to my prejudices, but it is nevertheless true: The r-word became taboo in order to help government employees control your children’s speech.

All attempts to regulate speech are attempts to exercise power over other people (by definition), but the case of the r-word seems pretty benign. After all, the ostensible motive is to keep children from being distracted so they can learn. But there are, as there always are, unintended consequences. You can’t just taboo a word for certain people (actually you can, but it’s more difficult); millions of English-speaking adults who were in no danger of disrupting a classroom were nevertheless guilted or pressured into having their speech regulated by the whims of a small group. Perhaps more insidiously, the mentally disadvantaged had a slur invented that applies especially to them. In order to make their lives easier, teachers chose to make the lives of a group of kids harder. This is a group of kids whose lives are already really hard, and who certainly did not need to have the insults heaped upon them worsened, but frankly they did not get to vote on it. Everyone else did.

In case it’s not clear what happened here, let’s speak by analogy. Let’s say that someone is going to insult you for your race. Imagine an insult that acknowledges your race but involves no slurs (“You Estonian bum!”); now imagine a taboo, offensive slur—imagine you are being called a taboo offensive slur. Which hurts more? Which is more hateful?

There were plenty of ways to insult the mentally disadvantaged (there always will be, unless we change our minds and decide that it’s great to be mentally disadvantaged), but there were no purposefully hateful and hurtful ways to insult the mentally disadvantaged until a bunch of progressive, charitable people, for the best of reasons, INVENTED ONE.

The difference in tone and connotation between “you’re dumb” and “you’re [r-word]” is the invention of people who were pretending they were helping. This is hard for us to acknowledge or understand, and you are probably building up a defensive fantasy that even if you were transported back in time to 1970 you would not use the r-word. Also, you’d be in favor of gay marriage. This is a fantasy, the way everyone who pretends to have been at Woodstock is indulging in a fantasy. Don’t be like hippies! Acknowledge that you have not always guessed the whims of your future! Sometimes you’re going to do something that people twenty years from now will think is wrong. Also, they will laugh at your haircut.

(continued tomorrow)




  1. Porter · · Reply

    Backing up the assertion on terms like Moron or Idiot – is Alfred Binet, the inventor of the Simon-Binet Scale. Why did he invent it? To identify children who would need additional help to keep up – not as a general scale to rank students by mental “worth”. Later, of course it was corrupted by H.H. Goddard – and it became the IQ Score.

    I particularly liked “The Mismeasure of Man” (revised, expanded edition) by Stephen Jay Gould for debunking these and other misapprehensions.

    To your point – the connotation of a word is often the more prone to change over time. The “b word” simply denotes a female dog. But to pretend in this era that it does not connote much more (especially depending on usage) is a fools errand.

    I think it may also be possible that there’s automatically some negative connotation when a word is created as a descriptive label for another group of people without their input. It may often be there was no harm intended – but I suspect it’s hard to avoid perceived injury in most of those cases. Whether the terms are Gweilo, or Laowai, or the R words or N word… They’re applied to a group outside of the creators of the term, without consent.

    I’m not about to argue that is good, bad, or indifferent. It just is. And it’s likely if someone had to stop and apply for consent of terminology assignment for everything – well nothing would get done. But I suspect that it’s the application of the term to your group from someone outside of the group that engenders a certain amount of the ill-will toward the term in question. I also suspect this can be exacerbated in the event there is a significant (initial or developed) difference in the social status of the two groups relative to one another.

    So looking at a word like Kaffir – considered to be a neutral term by the whites of South Africa to refer to blacks, it is now widely considered offensive. So while the term was considered neutral by those applying it to another group – I wonder what the group it was applied to thought of it if anyone had bothered to ask at the time. It may be that the neutrality of this and other terms changed over time – or it might be they were neutral only in the minds of the people applying them. Or, more likely the truth of the neutrality lies somewhere between, and is negotiated as a larger continuum of people become aware of the term and it’s perceived meaning and usage by peoples on either side of the divide: the labeled and the labelers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s obviously nice to use “endonyms” when possible, although of course we usually don’t — Germans don’t call themselves Germans, and Japanese don’t call themselves Japanese.

    There are perils, though — my favorite example is with Eskimos, a word certain people get offended by and insist upon Inuit. But the Inuit are an Eskimo people, and not all Eskimos are Inuit. It’s like telling some aliens that Earthlings are called “Americans.” It’s a power play, and the allegedly innocent handing over of terminology to someone else often descends into a power play like this.

    This is something I expect to revisit again and again…


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