According to dictionary.com, etymology means a “history of a particular word”. Words have stories and lives, just as people’s have stories and lives and it can be very interesting to trace how a word has shifted and morphed over centuries, or even just a few years.
For example, according to the etymology dictionary, “Education” was first used in the 1530s to mean “childrearing,” or “the training of animals” from the Latin “To bring out; lead forth”. The concept of “systematic schooling and training for work” didn’t happen for another 80 years until around the 1610s.
And words have power. Words with very similar meanings can divide or unite, calm or change, hurt or heal. For example, there is a very big difference between “death panels” and “end-of-life planning” -to wade right into a charged political issue. Words change, have power, and could be said to be “alive”.
Which is why we had a moment of verbal history yesterday. The word “retard” has a history since the late 15th century. It comes from Latin, retardare, which means “Re- again, or intensely” and “tardare- slow”. It has been used as a noun since 1788 to mean “delay”, with the accent on the second syllable. Beginning in the 1970’s in America, the accent mark changed to the first syllable and indicates an offensive term. In other words, a clear, scientific word evolved to become a very hurtful pejorative.
It followed a long line of other words. In the 1910’s, “moron” was used by the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded to be a technical definitionof an “adult with a mental age between 8 and 12”. It got used as an insult by the 1920s and was soon dropped by the Association (who also, not surprisingly, dropped the term “Feeble-minded” from their name).
But yesterday, President Obama signed “Rosa’s Law”- that changed the terminology of the Federal Government from the term “Retardation” to “Intellectual Disability” and uses person- first language to say “individual with an intellectual disability”. Named after Rosa Marcellino, a 9-year-old girl from Maryland, the law was introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who met Rosa’s mother at a meeting on special education. It is called a “law” but it does not affect services, rights or educational opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. It also aligns the terminology used in federal law with the term used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the White House through the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. And best of all, an analysis from the Congressional Budget Office found that there is no cost associated with the change.
Because of the legal language change, there has been considerable discussion about the change in terminology. Some people state that disability advocates are being “too sensitive” or that because we have freedom of speech, people have the right to use the “R-word”.
While I agree that such language might be “free”, it is not acceptable. After all, a swastika is really an ancient Hindu symbol that means “luck”. Yet, it’s a symbol that is illegal now in Germany and taboo here in the U.S. There is power in words- power that evolves and changes over time. What was once intended is now used for another purpose. The “r-word” might be “free”, but it is not too much to ask that it become as intolerable in our language as the swastika symbol or the “n-word”.
To that effort, I recommend that everyone sign on at www.r-word.org. It advocates taking a stance to ask others around you not to use “that” word. It’s a pledge that we will not stand idly by while language- language that is deeply insulting and comes with the pain of decades of families fighting for the rights of their children, their loved ones to received appropriate education, job opportunities and respect- that language will not be tolerated.
Because insults change as language changes, I fully expect my grandchildren to turn to each other and say “You’re so DELAYED” as an way of hurting each other. But that time is not now. We have a chance now to make a difference simply by changing our words.
Words have power. By changing the language, you change a mindset. By tolerating language, you tolerate oppression. And once oppression is acceptable for one group, it becomes acceptable for all groups.
To use the language of Martin Niemöller,
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
I celebrate that the Federal Government has spoken up against the “r word”. Will you?