1. characterized by a slowness or limitation in intellectual understanding and awareness, emotional development, academic progress, etc.

  2. Slang. stupid or foolish


  1. (used with a plural verb) people who are slow or limited in mental development (usually preceded by the)

    new schools for the retarded.

Usually the word retarded, or it's synonym handicapped, is considered a sensitive word/topic. When being misused or used as slang, it is considered very offensive. It is also considered being disrespectful to the crippled. When was the slang term of the original word, retard, first used? What is it's origin?

  • 4
    My understanding is that "retarded" as a description of a person's mental capabilities arose from an attempt to produce euphemisms for "idiot" and other terms that were previously used to describe people with mental deficiencies in medical and legal contexts. Ie, it's not "slang", it's psychiatrist's/social worker's "jargon". As to the use of the term to insult people, that's just normal crude speech - any medical term that somehow hints at abnormality will eventually be adopted as an insult.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 1:10
  • 1
    @HotLicks: Uh ... hmm ... An elegant theory, but to my ear "retard" and "idiot" have different connotations. "Imbecile" seems to have fallen out of fashion. I don't know why. "Useless cretins" is making a comeback. A bunch of bank managers once took offence when I called them troglodytes even though I didn't mean to offend them, but that's probably unrelated.
    – Ricky
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 1:23
  • 2
    @Ricky - "Idiot", "imbecile", and "cretin" were all once official "classifications" of mental disabilities. They were replaced with "retarded" and a few others I can't recall right now, in an effort to "eliminate the stigma" of the classifications. The fact that these terms come into and out of fashion as insults is simply the way things work -- there's nothing driving it other than (crude) human nature.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 1:59
  • BTW, "retarded" and "handicapped" are by no means "synonyms", any more than "human" and "animal" are synonyms. And none of these terms are "sacred". Some uses of some of the words are impolite, but that's entirely different from being "sacred".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 2:03
  • @HotLicks: Good points all except I'm not aware that "idiot" in particular has been replaced by anything. It's still very much in everyday use where I live (arguably the most politically correct city in the world, at least on the surface).
    – Ricky
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 2:04

4 Answers 4


You can start, as starts often do, with Wikipedia. "Retarded" originally started in the early 1900s as part of the phrase "mentally retarded", per Ngram and gained traction in the 1960s, being considered at the time to be the more sensitive, as it implies that cognitive shortcomings are not intrinsic, but rather a result of slow development. The wiki article claims that the use of the isolated "retard" dates to the mid 1980s.

  • I'm not asking about the more sensitive term but the slang term.
    – anonymous
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 4:40
  • @anonymous - Right. "mid 1980s". Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 4:41
  • and What caused this to start being used this way? The Ignorance of men?
    – anonymous
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 4:42
  • Retarded did not originate in the 1960s as a term for what we now call "mental disability."
    – deadrat
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 5:20
  • @deadrat - True, and I've edited. Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 5:34

This Wikipedia article, though brief and lacking much detail, describes the relationships between the various terms.

Basically, "idiot" has an IQ of 25 or below, "imbecile" has an IQ of 26-50, and "moron" has an IQ of 51-70.

Another reference describes the "mental retardation" scale that replaced idiot/imbecile/moron:

IQ score ranges (from DSM-IV, issued 1994):

  • Mild mental retardation: IQ 50-55 to 70; children require mild support; formally called "Educable Mentally Retarded".

  • Moderate retardation: IQ 35-40 to 50-55; children require moderate supervision and assistance; formally called "Trainable Mentally Retarded".

  • Severe mental retardation: IQ 20-25 to 35-40; can be taught basic life skills and simple tasks with supervision.

  • Profound mental retardation: IQ below 20-25; usually caused by a neurological condition; require constant care.

(When I had conversations with workers at the local mental hospital in 1974 they were using the terms "Educable Mentally Retarded" and "Trainable Mentally Retarded", rather than "Mild" and "Moderate".)

It's hard to find precise info on when the various changes occurred, save that (in the US) "Rosa's Law" was finally passed and signed in 2010, changing "mental retardation" to "intellectual disability" in US law.

As for the origin of the "offensive" sense of the above terms, people are people. If "idiot" or "retarded" is used as a technical description of a condition, and that condition implies something "bad" about the person with the condition, people will use the term as an insult. No one "invents" this usage, it just happens. The fact that "intellectually disabled", the latest term, is not (to my knowledge) already a popular insult is simply because it's too long and complicated to say (especially compared to "idiot" or "retard").


The OED finds the earliest use of retarded as a mental disability from G E Shuttleworth's 1895 book Mentally Deficient Children":

Such children are also described as 'backward', or of 'retarded mental development' -- terms corresponding to the 'Enfants arriérés' of French writers... and the 'Tardivi' of the Italians.

These French writers likely based their terminology of that of Édouard Séguin's 1846 treatise Traitement moral, hygiène et éducation des idiots et des autres enfants arriérés, which Wikipedia calls "the earliest systematic textbook dealing with the special needs of children with intellectual disabilities."

I can find in an online copy of La Riforma Medica, Gionale Internazionale Quotidiano di Medicina, chirurgia e scienze affini (Medical Reform, the International Daily Journal of Medicine, Surgery, and Related Sciences) what appears to be a reference to a school which in 1881 made the "first attempts" (primi tentativi) to educate retarded students ("tardivi gli scolaretti")

But fair warning, my Italian isn't much better than the online automatic translators.

The OED finds the earliest written use of retard in the March 23, 1970 issue of Time Magazine with an abusive meaning -- "CIA retards." The Association for Retarded Children (now the Association for Retarded Citizens) formed in 1950, and it's unlikely that they would have used the word retarded in their name if it had a pejorative connotation at the time. Maybe someone can narrow the timeframe.

The word is currently poisonous enough that a 2010 law removes the word from federal documents, replacing it with "intellectual disability."

  • This doesn't answer my question. As you can see in my question, I specifically asked for the origin of the offensive slang term for retarded
    – anonymous
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 5:02
  • @anonymous And I had such a good time.
    – deadrat
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 5:17
  • If you will edit something/add something in your answer that is something I approve of, I can give you credit.
    – anonymous
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 5:20
  • @anonymous Vivo ut serviam. See if my emendation helps.
    – deadrat
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 5:21
  • 1
    @anonymous It was a mild and proper rebuke, and I'm glad my edit helped.
    – deadrat
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 5:41

The word Retard originally came from the word Ritardando, a musical term that means to slow down or play slowly. This word now sadly is used for making fun off people for being slow academically or for other things.

  • Hello, WALickt537. This does not address OP's actual question, 'When was the slang term of the original word, retard, first used?' Asking for the etymology of the word rather than this usage would be off-topic on ELU as being easily answered by a quick look in a suitable reference work (eg Etymon). Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 17:30

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