I find it very irksome when a legitimate word devolves into a curse word or an insulting epithet. This only shows the true ignorance and disdain of the individuals who abuse language for their own purposes, thinking they are clever, but only showing just how misinformed they are. This week's word has been abused so much that now there are "movements" to ban its use. I support free speech. I don't think we should ban words. HOWEVER, I also advocate the proper use of said words. That's the point of this blog.
Retard: it's root is Latin and it means "to slow down." This does not mean the absence of anything, it implies stunted growth and development. Retardation is a noun derivative of the verb, meaning an individual who is in a state of slowed development. Mental retardation is just that--a reduced rate of cognitive development. Individuals with mental retardation are not "stupid" or "unintelligent," they are progressing at a pace that is not at the same speed as their peers. This means that [using round numbers for easy math] if an individual is, say 10 years old and average, then they are learning and developing along with the other 10-year-olds of their generation. If said individual is mentally retarded, then, depending on the rate of retardation, they may reach the 10-year-old level of cognition at say age 12 or 13 or even 20, again depending on the severity of the reduction in development. If it helps, thing in musical terms.
Ritardando comes from the same Latin root for retard and it means the same thing--to gradually slow down. When you are singing or playing the portion of the piece with the rit annotation, you do not simply stop singing or playing. You continue, but it is slower. This does not make the music any less enjoyable or moving. In fact, depending on the piece it may even enhance its beauty.
To call someone a "retard" or "retarded" because 1) you don't agree with them; 2) they did something you classify as "stupid"; 3) you don't like them; 4) any other inane reason for the sole purpose of causing damage to their self-esteem and/or bolstering yours through veiled downward social comparison only illustrates your own developmental delay in the realms of emotional intelligence and socialization. Let me clarify a couple other words that often get confused with retarded.
Stupid: this word's meanings run the gamut from the technical (lacking intelligence) to the socially motivated (pointless/worthless) to the temporary (stunned or dazed). I should leave my exploration of this word here before this entry becomes ungainly. Needless to say, however, it is not a direct synonym for retarded. If you mean someone lacks IQ points, then don't use "retarded."
Dumb: this has very little to do with intelligence, except that we as a species tend to be biased toward individuals with obvious communication skills. Dumb means the inability to speak. That's it. If someone is dumb, then they don't speak. Again, this does not indicate lack of intelligence, but rather a difficulty or lack of desire to communicate verbally.
Idiot: this word was once used by psychologists as part of an old classification system to identify or label individuals at various IQ levels. In that capacity it meant someone with an IQ score of 25 or less. This is an extremely low score, often an individual with a severe disability in need of 24-hour custodial care, and is extremely rare--less than 1% of the population would score this low. Scores of the average (95% of the population) individual range from 70 to 130; that means that only about 2.5% of individuals score above 130 and only about 2.5% of individuals score below 70. The original meaning for "idiot" (from both the Greek and the Latin) meant a person lacking in professional skill or someone who was untrained or uneducated. You certainly can't expect much from someone with no knowledge, but that can easily be rectified by teaching them. Then any "idiotic" deeds can be chalked up to lack of motivation or understanding.
In modern terms, the criteria for classification under developmental delay (notice it's developmental and not mental or intellectual!) are many. Yes, IQ is looked at, but that is just the starting point. Psychologists and developmental specialists also more importantly look at the individual's adaptive behaviors--can they feed themselves, clothe themselves, navigate the world--as appropriate to their chronological age. You wouldn't expect a 5-year old to be able to balance a checkbook, but you would expect them to be able to put on their own socks. Again, more information is necessary as well, such as any physical handicaps, emotional disturbances, and/or environmental factors that might also affect the results.
So, while I personally do not use the term "retarded" to indicate derision of any sort, I find myself having to use more technical terms such as "developmental delay" because of the lack of understanding and the lack of motivation for true understanding of the "average" person. It's just too easy to parrot a term in a misused context than it is to actually bother to look it up to make sure you're using it correctly.
Oh, and by the way [final thoughts, I promise!], as a humanist, I don't believe there are any "stupid" people, but there certainly are "stupid" decisions that people sometimes make.