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My college-age son and his friends use the terms "retarded" and "gay" pretty much interchangeably to mean substandard, bad, lame (in the sense of ineffectual or weak) or just plain wrong. I've suggested that he might want to be careful about where he uses such language, but he clearly isn't worried about being offensive with those terms.

Now add this to the equation: Last night we watched a recorded version of Comedy Central's "A Tribute to Sam Kinison." Comedy Central censors a lot of words, including names of body parts (although, curiously, they let "dick" remain unbleeped), terms for sex acts, and so on. And we could clearly see that the word "retarded" had been bleeped (it's a very easy word to lip-read). Note that Comedy Central does not censor the word "nigger" on the Dave Chapelle show, although this is a word Jon Stewart goes to great lengths to avoid saying on his own show (also, of course, on Comedy Central).

So I wonder: is the word "retarded" really that offensive? How about "gay" in the context described above?

UPDATE

From an Associated Press story (Young Jaded by Online Slurs) reported in the Boston Globe today (Sept. 21, 2011):

WASHINGTON - Young people immersed in the online world see racist and sexist slurs and other name-calling that probably would appall their parents and teachers. And most consider it no big deal, a poll says.

...

When the question is asked broadly, half of young people surveyed say using discriminatory words is wrong. But 54 percent think it’s OK to use them within their own circle of friends, because “I know we don’t mean it.’’ And they don’t worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble.

...

Demeaning something with “that’s so gay’’ is so common that two-thirds of young people see it used, and the majority aren’t offended at all, despite a public-service ad campaign that tried to stamp out the anti-gay slang.

A similar effort by the Special Olympics and others to persuade kids not to use “retard’’ hasn’t hit home with half of those surveyed, who don’t find the word even moderately bothersome. Twenty-seven percent are seriously offended, however.

Some teens just text the way they talk. Calling each other “gay’’ and “retarded’’ is routine in high school, says Robert Leader, 17, a senior in Voorhees, N.J. So teens text it, too.

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Example of "retard" addressed to children: youtube.com/watch?v=swrV9fFORas&t, especially at 1'24'' (youtube.com/watch?v=swrV9fFORas&t=1m24s) and 2'35'' (youtube.com/watch?v=swrV9fFORas&t=2m35s) –  VonC Nov 25 '10 at 19:33
    
Simon Amstell on the phrase "You're so gay": links.ýes.info/l/youre-so-gay. –  TRiG Jan 7 '11 at 18:46
    
Great question - well thought out and obviously of social import!! –  user5531 Apr 1 '11 at 19:05
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Interesting that you use the word 'lame' when explaining the intended meaning of 'gay' and 'retarded', since used thus it is also a slang term that has developed in much the same way as the other two. –  Karl Apr 4 '11 at 7:39
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Same goes for poor. But poor kids never kill themselves because of bullying. Or something like that. –  intuited Apr 4 '11 at 8:03
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12 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

This is a touchy and complicated issue. There is no simple answer. I'm gay and I probably would be far more offended by the use of "retarded" than by the use of "gay" that you're describing. The problem is not if you are offending anyone but if you might offend someone, and where and when. I personally don't mind people using the word "gay" that way, in great part because I think it's stupid, but not directly harmful; I think that is more damaging to the person saying it than to the concept of being gay. (Equating "gay" to something bad won't make being gay bad. South Park uses the word "gay" that way. When Cartman calls lame things "gay", Stone and Parker are mocking Cartman, not gay people.) I'm offended by the use of the word "retarded" for the same reason: as I am not retarded, if I were not offended, I'd be latently approving of the word being used that way.

But, in short, by using these words, you're always in danger of offending people, even if you haven't so far. Imagine: you meet someone you're getting along with. Let's call them person A. That person is with a friend of their own, let's call them person B. Your friend is with you. Your friend uses the words "gay" and "retarded" the way you described. Person B is offended by these words, either because a relative of his is retarded, or gay. Person A can offer you a job, or a piece of advice, or help you move, or anything of the sort. Person B later tells person A, "I don't like the sort of people that guy," (meaning you), "is hanging out with." Person A is now far less likely to help you.

Is it really a risk you want to take? From your question, it appears you are rather young. That leads to another issue: do you want to get used to that language? If using those words that way is not an issue now, do you want not to notice it when it becomes an issue to do so?

Think of bicycles and helmets. Someone might say they don't see the point of wearing a bicycle helmet because they've never come close to having an accident, but they wear them anyway. Maybe the two are related. Maybe the type of person who is so careful they've never come close to have an accident is the same type of person who wears a helmet. When you're in the process of falling down, it's too late to start wearing one.

You've never had a problem with that type of language and you probably won't until it's too late to do anything about it.

I don't have much advice to give, just a little. Don't try to change others. It generally fails to change anyone and alienates those who try to make others change. But don't change yourself either. You seem to think there's something wrong with using these words this way, despite much evidence that there is. My advice is: don't wait for the evidence to come along. Stay wary of that kind of language and don't start using it. If one day you run into a situation where it's clear that you're right, it will be too late to do anything about it. And if you never run into such a situation, what do you have to lose by being ready for it? The fun of using a few offensive word? I think it's a pretty good deal.

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I think this is pretty on target. The main point is that it's subjective; some people are really, really offended by either or both, and other people don't care. –  Henry Nov 25 '10 at 21:35
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"From your question, it appears you are rather young." The first words of my question reference "my college-age son," who is the one who uses the terms in question. But thank you for your answer, and for thinking I seem much younger than I am. :) –  Robusto Nov 26 '10 at 3:46
    
@Robusto, I seem not to have noticed that part. Sorry. –  eje211 Nov 26 '10 at 17:26
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i would take care to avoid taking this to the extreme, when you don't say or do anything in fear of offending people. someone will be offended no matter what you do –  Claudiu Dec 8 '10 at 20:16
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I happen to have a friend, okay that's me, who is gay and uses the word gay to designate anything too flashy or effeminate, both in Dutch and in English. I use "retarded" too, especially in Dutch. And nigger, again in Dutch. You explained it very well, and I do not disagree; I think it is just a matter of choice, find a balance. You don't always need to adapt to anyone's uptightness no matter what. I do think we should be more careful with children. If they use such words, ask what they mean by those exactly. // No-one over 12 in Holland ever wears a bicycle helmet, even though we cycle a lot. –  Cerberus Jan 10 '11 at 16:47
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The person to ask would be someone who was bullied for being retarded, attacked for being gay or who has had to help deal with the fallout from those things. Children have no moral sense and very little sense of proportion. They use terms offensively because their peers do. It's find and it's funny until they run into someone who has been abused or victimised in a way that relates to those words and then it can be horribly offensive. It's like tasteless jokes- they are funny until you happen to tell one in the wrong company and suddenly they are deeply embarrassing. Given that one can rarely be certain of the company one is in, I prefer to stay on the right side of what I consider good taste to save on tears and blushes.

At the same time these terms are changing- the word "gay" to mean something is rubbish is very common among schoolkids ( and on South Park ) and I doubt that many people who consider themselves gay would really be able to complain too much about that change unless they think of themselves as being frivolous and light hearted, seeing as that is what the term meant to almost everyone until a couple of generations ago.

Likewise psychologists and teachers don't use "retarded" as a description of a person any more partly because it has gained offensive connotations, possibly also because it always had them and probably in a few years it will be a relatively harmless term. But right now I would still consider it offensive - there are still people who were branded with it around after all - and I'd explain that to my children if I had any. It wouldn't stop them of course- nothing stops kids swearing at each other - but I'd want them to know nonetheless.

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Thanks for some good points. And you're right: nothing I can say will change my son's behavior (and at this stage I wonder whether my objections may actually encourage what I am trying to discourage). –  Robusto Nov 25 '10 at 17:28
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Boo for “I doubt that many people who consider themselves gay would really be able to complain too much about that change” :-( –  nohat Nov 25 '10 at 18:29
    
Why so, @nohat? Language changes. It is not immutable and ultimately the way words are used will dictate what they mean to people. Gay has already totally changed usage once in the last 50-100 years, it is quite plausible it will do so again. I'm only commenting on a change that appears to be occurring whether people like it or not, I'm not endorsing it. You can't just declare a word means a certain thing and expect it to stay that way forever. If you could, "gay" would still mean light-hearted and frivolous. –  glenatron Dec 2 '10 at 23:49
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I don't like it. It is a change borne out of a distasteful mindset. Hence: "boo". –  nohat Dec 3 '10 at 15:57
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I have a number of gay and bisexual acquaintances and friends, and of those near my age (19), none has ever expressed a terrible amount of offence over "gay" as a pejorative. It's seen as pretty mild: saying "that's gay" is on the order of saying "that sucks"; similarly, saying "that's retarded" is pretty close to saying "that's damn stupid".

The only people I've known to've been offended by these terms have been discriminated against, or have worked closely with others who have.

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Perhaps this just means that your friends have been fortunate enough (or sheltered enough) not to have been discriminated against. Yet. And what they "express" (around their straight acquaintances, such as, apparently, yourself) may not be what they actually feel. –  mickeyf Nov 26 '10 at 0:46
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@mickeyf: You might think so, but their experiences with discrimination vary widely. I'm definitely with you on the point that people don't always express how much they might really be upset. I'm actually bisexual, but I don't think my sexuality is so much of an issue here. Being understanding and reasonable is the most important thing, though I guess it can't be hurt by shared experience. Anyway, I guess the answer I was trying to give is "slightly offensive, but your mileage may vary". –  Jon Purdy Nov 26 '10 at 0:56
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+1 I've never known any of my gay friends to be offended by usage of the word "gay" as a general pejorative. I have however known well meaning straight people to get annoyed on their behalf if they happen to be present. –  Orbling Jan 8 '11 at 0:15
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@Orbling: Right, I usually let it go too. But if it is meant in a bigoted fashion, I have developed a good intermediate technique: I just laugh very hard in their face. They will be surprised, and not know how to respond; they don't see anything funny, they think I am ridiculing them, which I am, but there is nothing to respond to. And because my laughing sounds friendly, they won't get mad and the party won't be spoiled. But bystanders will get the message. –  Cerberus Jan 10 '11 at 17:32
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@Cerberus: Sounds like a sensible technique. I always think it a good idea to "move along swiftly", with any situation that is unpleasant. Otherwise you let some fools ruin your day. –  Orbling Jan 10 '11 at 17:44
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I personally don't find either offensive. But I generally lose respect for anyone who wears out terms. In your sons case, it doesn't sound like it's a matter of prejudice. That would be a different matter. If people would worry less about words and more about the message, we'd be in better shape.

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+1 for your last sentence –  advs89 Feb 17 '11 at 3:05
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The problem with these insults is what you might call the "scatter-gun" effect. If you insult Person A by comparing her to Group X, you have also insulted Group X. And that is not cool (especially when Group X is a disenfranchised minority).

I'm gay myself, and object when people use that word as an insult. I'd also object to that usage of the word retarded and indeed the word lame. There are plenty of insults which are direct, and don't hurt other people.

I've become more aware of these issues having read most of the Shapely Prose archive.

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"There are plenty of insults which are direct, and don't hurt other people.": We definitely need a list of those! –  Joachim Sauer Sep 21 '11 at 12:22
    
@JoachimSauer. fekin' eejit. –  TRiG Sep 21 '11 at 13:35
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I've always been offended by the use of those kind of words as insults. I mean using the word describing the nature of a person as an insult, because that's what you are. I really make a difference between TO DO and TO BE concerning insults.

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I think the best way to look something in this context is that if you have to ask the question

Is it racist?

Is it sexist?

Is it offensive?

then it is best avoided. The reason being that if you have thought about it, so have other people and thus there are likely to be those who will be offended by it.

Even if you can find strong support from some that a word/term is acceptable, you still risk offending those that disagree - no matter how good your argument is.

Ultimately, if it can offend, it will offend (some people). With that in mind, the safest option is simply not to use them.

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I find the idea of avoiding any word that someone could possibly find offensive quite offensive. –  intuited Apr 4 '11 at 8:19
    
I do entirely see your point. I find it very irritating that certain words have been labelled 'taboo' simply to enforce political correctness. Nevertheless, in 'the real world', if you want to get along you will have to conform to a certain extent. I commend those who refuse to be changed by such social rules but at the same time those people will invariably come against much opposition and find progression somewhat difficult. As I said in my answer, avoiding these words is the 'safest' option. I am not saying that I think it is right, just safe. I don't think you could dispute that much? –  Karl Apr 4 '11 at 8:34
    
@Karl: Depends on who you hang out with. A lot of people will think you're pretty queer for mincing words like that. A lot of people are offended by queerness, in all senses of the word. –  intuited Apr 4 '11 at 9:42
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@Karl: I'm saying that you shouldn't try to avoid offending people. It's unlikely to work reliably and hampers your ability to communicate. Personally, I'm offended by the fact that there are millions of aggressive homophobes out there, but avoiding the issue doesn't help to resolve it. –  intuited Apr 4 '11 at 18:24
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@Karl I get that the first comment by intuited was meant to be a joke. –  kiamlaluno Apr 11 '11 at 2:19
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Of the two, I would consider "retarded" far more offensive.

"Gay" has been largely (though not entirely) accepted in mainstream society. And some people involved would be proud to call themselves "gay," (although the term is sometimes used by others as a pejorative).

"Retarded" has entirely negative connotations. It's hard to imagine anyone being proud to be "retarded." Fortunately (for them), those that actually are, may not fully comprehend the word.

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FYI: Retarded people tend to know they are retarded, depending on the severity. –  MrHen Jun 23 '11 at 22:04
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@Jasper: except those that think the rest of the world is crazy... –  Martijn Oct 6 '11 at 10:48
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Your Comedy Central examples point to the answer, which is that a lot depends on context. Both the person speaking, their presumed relationship with objects of the word, and the present day context.

The Daily Show actually did a great bit around this (I think it was called "Oliver and Oliver") where they had a white correspondent and a black correspondent go out together and try to get people to say the N-word. Any time they personally needed to say it, the white correspondent would point to the black correspondent, and he would say it.

Kinneson is an interesting example, in that he died a long time ago. That bit you were watching was probably from the mid-80's. Believe it or not, retarded was not generally considered an offensive word back then.

Back in the late 60's and early 70's, the N-word was not considered so vile that the melanin-challenged could only refer to it indirectly as I've done here. This is when the movie Blazing Saddles came out. It heavily satirized the racial issues of the day, so naturally "bad guys" in the flick used the word extensively. Today, that word has become so offensive that its actually hard to find copies of Blazing Saddles that contain the original verbage unmarred (and a person feels quite awkward laughing at them).

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I think @eje211's exposé above is very good and don't disagree with it. I'd just like to give a slightly different approach to answering your question from a linguist's point of view, which hinges on how you define the notion of a word being "offensive".

There's a theory (supported by some experimental evidence) that what makes "offensive" words offensive is that speakers tie them to abhorrent ideas in such a way that when they read/hear the word it makes them 'automatically' think about the abhorrent idea, without them being able to control this process. It's a bit like when you show somebody the word "BLUE" written in green ink and ask them what colour it is, they are liable to automatically say "blue" rather than the actual colour, and/or take longer than usual to determine what the colour is. There seem to be some words that have such an 'automatic' link to an idea that they can override or stall our normal processing of stimuli. Colour names appear to do this. And it turns out that words that we find "offensive" also seem to do this: e.g. if you show somebody the word "fuck" or "rape" in a particular colour and ask them what the colour is, their processing is stalled just as with a colour word shown in another colour.

Or in other words, accepting this definition and methodology, there actually appears to be an empirical way in which we can judge the 'offensiveness' of a word, by measuring people's mean 'stalling time' of a person's normal mental processes when reading that word.

On the other hand, I don't know of this method being specifically used with the words "gay" or "retarded". And of course, such experiments aren't without difficulties, and don't tell us in what way people might find a given word offensive. (For example, somebody could find the word "retarded" offensive because they personally have a relative who is below average intelligence and have memories of that relative being personally upset by the use of the label; or they could find it offensive from a social point of view: they find the notion of discrimination per se abhorrent. The psychological experiment I mention won't differentiate those cases.) But I just wanted to highlight that there's another approach to the problem.

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From my experience in England (but I would say this of my experiences in the US also), in any formal context, such as work, "retarded" generally does not provoke much offence when used of things that are very stupid (but not merely substandard), while using "gay" as a slur is likely to damage one's career and position, at least in the short term.

That said, using "retard" or "retarded" to describe someone with educational or learning difficulties or differences is likely to be extremely offensive. Likewise, using "gay" in a negative way to describe a person who is, or is rumoured or supposed to be attracted to their own sex, will get you in trouble.

There seems to be a movement in America to reframe retarded as a similar form of hate speech (which I think is perhaps a little foolish, because it is not acceptable to use the word as a "plain" descriptor; by contrast "gay" is now accepted as the normal way of describing same-sex attraction). I would generally suggest that you avoid both words in any formal context.

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I'm sorry but the whole idea of "gay" and "retarded" be offensive when used in that context is absolutely ludicrous. The idea is that you are saying something is "gay" to mean it's homosexual and bad, but that's not at all what it means in that context. In that context it literally means "stupid" or "bad" NOT homosexual. What has happened is these words have been given new meanings that are completely separate from the original meaning... not like homosexual was the original meaning of gay anyway. This is not something new at all words are given new meanings all the time and nobody makes a fuss over it. It's freaking stupid.

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So do you think it's gay, or just retarded? –  KitFox Mar 14 '12 at 13:10
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protected by RegDwigнt Mar 14 '12 at 13:21

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