“Are you Retarded?”: The Use of Clinical Jargon as Slang

dude-bro-thats-sickHow 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.

1. Retarded

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.

2. 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!

3. Retarded

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: mikayla.victorialee@gmail.com


5 Tips for Being a Better Verbal Communicator


Good verbal communication skills are necessary for functioning well in personal, professional and academic relationships. In a world where much of our interaction is electronic, many people forget how to convey information effectively face-to-face. These holistic tips will not only help you improve your interpersonal skills, but they are also applicable to general physical health and personal growth.

1. Rest Well & Eat Healthy

As well as being essential to overall health, good sleeping habits are critical for being able to remember and process information at your best. Nutrition also plays a factor in how sharp your brain is, which in turn affects your mood, reactions and body language –all of which affect the way others perceive your message. Check out this list of foods that aid in memory and brain function.

2. Research & Prepare

When it comes to communicating well during an interview or presentation, your greatest weapon is doing your homework. Read a few articles or reviews about the company you want to work for. Familiarize yourself with their mission statement and recent initiatives. Make sure you have a good amount of background knowledge on the subject you are presenting and know what others have said in support or criticism of it. Doing adequate research and knowing your audience can help immensely when it comes to getting a point or argument across. Not only will you be more confident in what you’re saying, but you’ll also be prepared to answer any unexpected questions that may come your way.

3. Mind-Map

After you have done your research, carefully plan out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Decide which points you want to start out with and which you prefer to drive home near the end. Will you take any time to pause? To ask any questions? Write these things down. Go over it in your head or aloud. If it doesn’t sound right, try organizing your thoughts in a different way to see if it comes across more clearly or makes more of an impression.

4. Listen!

I’ve heard it said that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we talk :P. All joking aside, there is a lot of truth to this statement. Communication is a two-way  model. As well as a message producer, there must be a message receiver. Listening is not only a sign of respect for the other person(s) in the conversation, it is also beneficial for getting feedback and gauging their responsiveness to what you have just said. Don’t just listen to their words though– body language and tone of voice can also be very telling. Even if you are presenting in front of a large number of people, you can still ‘listen’ to how your audience is responding to you. If you sense a negative response, adjust your approach.


The key to being successful in anything is to simply keep at it. The more you practice your verbal communication skills, the better they will be. You will gain experience speaking to and with a variety of personalities and in a variety of situations. You”ll also become more comfortable expressing your honest thoughts and opinions with confidence. As you develop this skill and become more personable, more people will want to connect with you and you’ll see new opportunities arising more often.

Remember, what you say is just as important as how you say it!

Want to learn about non-verbal communication? Take a look at the links below!

Working hard or hardly working?

Memory is one of those cognitive resources that we often trust far more than we should. Evidence from psychology experiments have indicated that our confidence in recalling details of an event is not a worthy indicator of the accuracy of those details. Imagine the implications for courtroom situations that rely on eye-witnesses or even remembering to turn off the stove!cognition

Working memory is a type of memory system that keeps critical information readily available. To give an example, as you are reading this sentence, your working memory is keeping the words you’ve already read at hand so that by the time you reach the end of the sentence, everything makes sense! (What a mouthful! 🙂 ).

Try this working memory test for yourself to give your brain a challenge!

An introduction

Hi, I’m Mikayla 🙂

I’m a linguist, creative writer, singer, and health/fitness enthusiast. I enjoy reading and studying about the way language works in the brain and how humans eventually produce language and convey ideas either through speech or writing. I’m also intrigued by the effects of health and nutrition on our capacity to communicate effectively.

I created this space to share interesting things I have found along the way in my never-ending search for knowledge on the topics above! Please enjoy and share any comments/feedback you may have about my page. I’m a people person and would LOVE to hear from you!