Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Retarded

Because that's how my brain is feeling, this far into the A-Z challenge. Retarded. I'm trying to get around to reading all these fabulous posts by other participants (which I am doing, mostly) and to think of insightful comments to leave on other blogs, and my mind is going D'oh! like Homer Simpson.

Retarded, according to my Random House Webster's Dictionary, means characterized by retardation. And that means:

1. the act of retarding or the state of being retarded
2. something that retards; hindrance
3. slowness or limitation in intellectual understanding and awareness, emotional development, academic progress, etc.

Please do not sic some shrill-voiced grifter in a red dress on me, okay? Because I am using the word correctly, and if in a disparaging manner, it's to myself.

Not that long ago, it was not politically incorrect to use the word "retarded" to refer to those with Down's Syndrome or other developmental delays. It could be respectful, "Jimmy, don't stare at that boy, it's not nice. He can't help the way he looks, he's retarded." Or it could be insulting, "Girlfriend, I can't believe you failed the English test on Friday, it was so easy. You must be full-on retarded!"

Now it's come about that people are referring, in hushed tones, to "the R word," as those who are pigmentally challenged usually refer to "the N word." Though about "the N word," there is a fiery debate raging among those with darker skin coloring as to whether it is acceptable (for them) to say the word as a way of reclaiming its meaning, or whether it is still insulting and degrading even when it comes from a new artist, dripping with bling, rapping about his homies and his ho's.

American English sure can be a bitch!

My stepmother, who died a few years ago, was born a Negro. For much of her youth she remained a Negro, but with the dawning of the civil rights movement, she became a colored person. Then in the 1960's through the 1980's, she was black and beautiful (and she truly was beautiful, IMO.) Sometime in the 1990's, she became African-American.

This was very confusing to her and others of her generation. Personally, I don't think people need to "correct" an elderly person with dark skin who calls herself black, colored, or Queen of the May for that matter.

"Gay" is totally owned by homosexuality now, in most people's minds, and whether it's used in an old Broadway standard, "I Feel Pretty," or a Victorian novel, hearing it out of present-day context will evoke snickers or smirks. Like "the R word" used to be, gay can be used in a neutral way, "That's my cousin over there, with his partner; he knew he was gay all the way back in middle school." Or gay can be insulting, "I can't believe you did that, dude, that is so gay!"

Language drifts; old words acquire new meanings, new words are added on. We don't use "prithee" much anymore; we do use "texting." "Lame" is what we say about someone doing the Funky Chicken on the dance floor, not what we say about someone of similar age with a bad hip.

James Brown could get away with this and look groovy; Great-Uncle Jim will just look... lame.

As writers, it behooves us (look it up!) to not only pay attention to these things, but to make an effort to find beta readers in our "world." If it's set in the not-too-distant past (like the 1960's or 70's), we can find sharp-eyed readers who will recognize time clues or anachronisms from that era.

If it's YA, we can recruit (or bribe) teenagers to read it looking specifically for word choices that don't work. If it's set among private investigators, or ballet dancers, or the adult movie industry, we should get at least one, preferably more, set of "eyes" to look it over to ensure we're not using words that jar the reader out of the world we're writing about.

If it's sci-fi, we might find an actual scientist in that general field to read and see if it holds water. For fantasy - we may not be able to get a reader from the planet XKSDBWUG-y, but we can locate readers who read our general genre.

That's all I got. I was thinking of going in another direction, but my mind is feeling, well, retarded right now.

What words or phrases do you wish would make a comeback?
What new words are you happy to have?