How do words that were once used in a purely medical or literal context become terms that are thrown around as slang, and (often politically incorrect) insults?
For one of my undergraduate linguistics seminars, I’m required to do some corpus research to discover something interesting about how people use words in real life and I’ve chosen to try and answer this question. The interest in this topic stems from the fact that people are constantly attempting to learn English– a task that is becoming increasingly difficult because the language is constantly changing. Newcomers to an English speaking country must know how to function linguistically which entails far more than simply being taught grammar from a book. In fact, for this very reason, Merriam Webster now offers a Learner’s Dictionary, a great resource intended to teach new English speakers things they won’t ever learn in a formal classroom setting. To thrive in an English-speaking environment, one must have an awareness of slang words to avoid embarrassment and perhaps even dangerous situations.
I have long been intrigued by the semantic shift in words like “retard”, “idiot”, “moron”, “lame”, “sick” etc.. over the course of the century. In fact, many words like these have even changed in meaning over the course of my lifetime. The words “retard” and its adjectival counterpart “retarded” have been of particular interest to me. Originally used to mean “slowed” or delayed” especially in a developmental context (as derived from the French retarder), this word came into regular usage as an insult in the 1970s to describe someone who is stupid or foolish (source: Online Etymology Dictionary).
While this offensive term still circulates regularly, it has been transformed yet again but this time to a (somewhat) positive context. Exhibit A – “Let’s Get Retarded”, the 2004 anthem performed by the pop group The Black Eyed Peas and more often known by its more politically correct title “Let’s Get it Started”. It describes the thrill and uncontrollable urge to move and dance when great music starts to play. Lead singer Will.I.Am raps:
“In this context there’s no disrespect/So when I bust my rhyme, you break your necks/We got five minutes for us to disconnect/From all intellect and let the rhythm effect….Everybody, let’s get into it/Let’s get stupid/Let’s get retarded.”
While this song unsurprisingly garnered criticism for its lyrics, it does make me wonder about the direction in which language is moving. After all, who ever imagined that the word “cool”, a description of temperature, would one day mean “fashionable”? If you think about it, the definitions are often completely arbitrary and really makes little sense. As humans, we tend to construct our own meaning and define things for ourselves. So even if the Black Eyed Peas are offensive, perhaps they were just ahead of their time.
In my own experience, people mostly use retarded in a positive context when referring to inebriation or even now as an intensifier. But, I’m also noticing it being used in place of words like “awesome” and “amazing”, particularly when referring to someone’s skill at something. Below are three of the top 15 entries from Urban Dictionary that show examples of how this word is currently being used.
The act of getting wasted on drink or drugs ie. being in a retarded state.
man I drank so much last night I was retarded.
just another word for cool, dope, tight, chill, or whatever you say when you like something.
Beach Dude#1: Dude #2, the waves look pretty retarded out there, you wanna go catch them?
Beach Dude#2: SWEET!
extremely, very, to the utmost degree. Usually used to modify another adjective, as in retarded hot, retarded cool, retarded smart, retarded hip, retarded hard, etc.
Dude, that girl is retarded hot.
Man, your Mercury Cougar is a retarded sweet ride.
In my research I intend to further study the usage of this words, along with other controversial slang and attempt to address the underlying causes for the changes in meaning. I’ll be sure to share any cool information that pops up along the way, so stay tuned! 🙂
For more info about my semantics research and corpus analysis, contact me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org