As I was growing up in the 1970s, my father worked for the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, one of the now-renamed state agencies. The term “retardation” was common in my home and life, but it was sterile and clinical. It is only in the past generation that the medical term turned into the slang “retard” and gained power as an insult. The shift is even apparent in popular movies. There was little public controversy when Matt Dillon tried to woo Cameron Diaz in the 1998 hit comedy “There’s Something About Mary” by confessing his passion: “I work with retards.” (Diaz’s character, Mary, had a mentally disabled brother.) But 10 years later, in the comedy “Tropic Thunder,” Robert Downey Jr.’s use of the phrase “full retard” led to picketing and calls for a boycott. (…)
I’ve coined a term for overzealous or extreme responses to insulting words: “word fetish.” Those under the influence of word fetish aren’t content to refrain from using a certain word; they are set on eradicating any use by others.
A classic example was the plight of David Howard, a white employee in the D.C. mayor’s office in 1999. Howard told staff members that because of budget cuts, he would have to be “niggardly” with available funds. Wrongly believing “niggardly” was a variation of the N-word, black subordinates lobbied for his resignation. Howard ultimately resigned after public protests, though he was soon reinstated.
If the campaign against “retard” is successful, an identical risk of word fetish exists. (Imagine that Emanuel had spoken of “retarding the opposition” — would that be unacceptable?)