Rattus Schmattus

rattus strip

This comic is more poignant to me than Scott Adams probably intended. The power of words to harm or heal, and the futility of trying to change hearts by changing labels, are nailed by these three pithy little panels. No matter what you call yourself, haters gonna hate.

Several months back, during the presidential debates, Ann Coulter called President Obama “the retard” on Twitter and implied that he was trying to secure “the retarded vote.” The use of “retard” and “retarded” as offensive slang is now so common that some young people might be justly surprised to learn that the words have any other meanings. I consulted some online dictionaries to check the status of the word “retarded” in contemporary usage. Merriam-Webster gave a primary definition of slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress; The Free Dictionary filled the number-one slot with affected with mental retardation but added the qualifier, often offensive. The traditional definition is slipping, but still far from obsolete.

The use of these words as insults rather than descriptive terms is meant to be funny, and it often succeeds. “Retarded” has an edge that “stupid” lacks, precisely because of that other, primary definition hovering around the edge of the conscious mind. I often laugh myself when I hear it used that way, when I’m caught off guard and the delivery is clever. But I’m always ashamed afterwards, because I always think of my oldest brother, who was what might nowadays be referred to as “cognitively impaired.” In spite of his disability, Magoo, as he was called, had a strong people-sense that transcended cognition. I never knew him, but growing up I was fascinated by the stories about his surprising displays of intuition, compassion, affection, and humor. Like the time at the amusement park when he held back his younger brothers and sisters to let another group of children go first on the rides. It turned out this group was from a school for the deaf. No one had told Magoo that, but on some level he knew these kids deserved special consideration and took it upon himself to give it to them. Or the time when, standing in the grocery checkout line with Dad, he became so enchanted with a nearby baby in a carriage, who happened to be black, that he unselfconsciously kissed the child. (This probably happened somewhere in or around San Antonio in the early 1960s. The child’s mother was so frightened by the possible reactions of other customers to the little white boy’s innocent affection that she grabbed her baby and fled the store, abandoning her groceries. So this did not work out so well for her, which is a shame; but I still like my brother’s lack of constraint.) Later Magoo befriended and showed special kindness to a young burn victim, also black, at the hospital where he ultimately lost his life at age ten.

“Retarded” is the word my siblings and I were taught for his condition. At that time the word was not meant offensively; it was merely a useful descriptive term. At the simplest level the word means slow; the musical term “ritardando” comes from the same root.

No one needs to lecture me about the fluid, dynamic nature of language. I know the difference between prescriptive and descriptive linguistics; I know about pejoration and amelioration and how they occur; I know that the definitions of words, as well as spelling and grammar, change over time. I’m well aware that the English we speak today is a far cry from the English of Chaucer’s day and an even farther cry from that of the Beowulf-poet. Even the English of Shakespeare’s plays would be difficult for us to understand if we heard it pronounced as it was when it was penned, and some of Shakespeare’s puns don’t make sense to modern ears because the words have altered. (The English of Shakespeare’s plays and of the 1611 King James Bible, by the way, is properly called Early Modern English, not Old English. Old English is the English of Beowulf and indecipherable to anyone who hasn’t studied it. The English of Chaucer’s day is Middle English. Please don’t say that the King James Bible and the works of the Bard are written in Old English. Just please don’t.)


Old English, FTW.

Pejoration and amelioration are ways in which words alter over time in terms of ethical or moral value. When a word’s meaning becomes more negative, we say that it has pejorated. When it becomes more positive, we say that it has ameliorated. The words nerd and geek have ameliorated wonderfully over my lifetime, and in my opinion this is one of the triumphs of the modern age.

Pejoration, however, is the more common process. Maybe this is because of entropy; I don’t know. When words pejorate badly enough, they become taboo, and we replace them with euphemisms, which over time also pejorate and become taboo in turn. Where we see this process occur most often is with words associated with death and with race or ethnic identity. Undertakers/morticians/funeral directors are constantly updating the words of their trade—though, to paraphrase Thomas Pyles, a loved one in a casket is just as dead as a corpse in a coffin. Likewise, pejoration of ethnic words is a quick business, often occurring in less than a generation’s time. It’s a sad business, as well; witness plucky little Ratbert’s attempt to alter people’s perceptions of him by replacing rat with rattus, only to see the more dignified term become instantly defiled.

Sometimes the reaction against pejoration is overblown. Most of us have scoffed at silly euphemisms contrived by people being overly sensitive or exaggerating their own importance. We ought to resist caving to foolish whims; otherwise the language will lose force, nuance, and clarity. But there’s more to it than that—like showing consideration, and respecting the differences among us, and choosing to use words in a way whose overall effect is to build up rather than tear down. And all that is done from a position of strength.

The issue is similar to the biblical one of meat sacrificed to idols. A first-century Christian who engaged in idol worship prior to his conversion might intellectually know that meat sacrificed to idols is just meat and not inherently evil, but feelings are subjective and don’t always obey intellect. And eating that meat—which technically he is free to do—hurts his conscience. The experience is like that of hearing a song you associate with a bad time in your past. The melody bypasses reason and taps directly into emotional memory, putting you in a funk that might last all day, hampering productivity and throwing a wrench in current relationships. If the association between meat and idol worship is as strong as all that, it’s best to abstain. In some cases, the person doing the eating might be perfectly easy in his conscience but keeping company with others who are less bold in their liberty. Here, again, it’s best to abstain, for the sake of another’s conscience instead of one’s own.

I know we can’t stop the tide of linguistic change. It may well be that a century from now, “retarded” will be just a synonym for “stupid” and its earlier definition will be forgotten. My aim is not to stifle change or hamstring the development of the imagination. I speak to individuals, not the great anonymous tide of English-speaking humanity. We can do better. We can respect each other’s feelings in matters like this. We can be kind.

Doing this sometimes comes at a cost. We may want to use a particular word because it has a punch which a less offensive synonym lacks. Giving it up might involve a genuine loss of power in our written or spoken speech.

I’m not advocating a wholesale emasculation, flattening, or dumbing-down of language into some nicey-nice collection of mealy-mouthed phonemic units that never offend anyone or mean much of anything. Words are tools. Some are soft and light, like dust cloths. Some have edges, like knives. Words with edges are useful but dangerous; they should be respected and kept away from small children. I wouldn’t stand by and let some well-meaning busybody remove all the knives from my house just because they are capable of hurting people. The very quality that makes them dangerous is also what makes them useful. Sometimes you need to cut things, and neither a dust cloth nor even a spatula will serve. Likewise, sometimes words ought to cut. Graft, greed, oppression, sloth, negligence, and perversion ought to be called out—sometimes with direct cutting language, sometimes with oblique slashes of satire, sometimes with hyperbole.

There are few hard-and-fast rules that will work here. Mostly we have to go case by case. But I think there are a few word usages we would do well to eliminate altogether—not because we have to, but of our own free will, in generosity of spirit. A good general guideline is that if my use of a word is likely to hurt an innocent person or erode his dignity in the eyes of others, I should abstain. Inflicting harm, deliberately or carelessly, and then excusing the action by claiming the immunity of liberty, is a poor practice.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.

Proverbs 18:21

One comment on “Rattus Schmattus

  1. Sean McMains says:

    Great thoughts. Appreciate your ruminations on language and the application thereof.

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