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Retard, when used as a verb is to refer to delay or hold back in terms of progress or development, or to be delayed. As a noun, it is considered a dated, offensive and pejorative term when used to refer to a person who has a mental disability. It was previously used as a genuine term in medical contexts, though has since been succeeded with the term "intellectual disability" in many laws and documents throughout countries in the world. It is also used as an informal term to refer to a foolish or stupid person, though this informal usage has been viewed by many as controversial, mainly due to confusion to the words' history as a medical term.
The word "retard" originally came from Latin, a synonym of "slow". It entered the English language in the 15th century, and was used to refer to delaying or holding back in terms of progress or development. The word "decelerate" would succeed "retard" overtime. "Retard" first became known as a medical term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when medical texts began to describe children with "retarded mental development". Up until around the 1960s, the terms "moron", "idiot", "cretin" and "imbecile" were all genuine terms to refer to people with mental intellectual disabilities and low intelligence. These words were discontinued in that form when concerns arose that they were offensive, with "retard" and "retarded" replacing them. Since then, the terms "handicapped" (United States) and "disabled" (United Kingdom) have replaced "retard" and "retarded". In 2010, despite not typically being used in official context, "mental retardation" was still written in many of the United States' laws and documents, considered by many to be outdated. Barack Obama replaced the term with "intellectual disability" with the approval of Rosa's Law - which would require these laws and documents to phase out the terms with the "intellectual disability" term.
Today, despite possessing a similar history to the former medical words "moron", "idiot", "cretin" and "imbecile" (all considered acceptable terms to refer to a foolish or stupid person in the present day), "retard" and "retarded" remain controversial when used in this form, mainly due to the word having a more recent history as a medical term.
The word retard dates as far back as 1426. It stems from the Latin verb retardare, meaning to hinder or make slow. The English adopted the word and used it as similar meaning, slow and delayed. The first time the word "retard" was printed in American newspapers was in 1704. At this time, it was used in a way to describe the slowing down or the diminishing of something. The first time that any form of retard was used to describe mentally disabled people was during the 1960s when "there was a push among disability advocates to use the label mental retardation". This push from advocates was because older terms for the mentally disabled, like moron, imbecile, feeble-minded and idiot, had developed negative meanings. Retard was not used to refer to mentally disabled people until 1985. It was widely accepted to refer to people who are mentally disabled as mentally retarded, or as a retard. From there, it turned quickly into a pejorative term, as people began to use it interchangeably with words like stupid, or idiot. Many communities, particularly in North America, regard the word as no longer socially acceptable. The fact that it is still commonly used has led to a continuing debate. A common replacement is the phrase "the r-word".
"Retard" has transitioned from an impartial term to one that is negatively loaded. For this reason, it is now widely considered degrading even when used in its original context.
Much like today's widely socially acceptable terms idiot and moron, which are also defined as some sort of mental disability, when the term retard is being used in its pejorative form, it is usually not being directed at people with mental disabilities. Instead, people use the term when teasing their friends or as a general insult when in an argument.
U.S. President Barack Obama signed S. 2781 into law on October 5, 2010. Known as Rosa's Law, it is a bill that changed references in federal law; the term mental retardation was replaced by mental disability. Additionally, the phrase "mentally retarded individual" was replaced with "an individual with an intellectual disability". Rosa's Law was named after Rosa Marcellino, a nine-year-old girl with Down syndrome. She worked with her parents to have the words "mentally retarded" officially removed from health and education code in Maryland, her home state. With this new law, "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" no longer exist in federal health or education and labor policy. The rights of individuals with disabilities would remain the same. The goal of this word removal was to remove language that may be considered hurtful from communities.
The most popular campaign against use of the word "retard" is an organization called R-Word. On its website, users can sign a pledge not to use the word in everyday speech. It is supported by Special Olympics, Best Buddies, and 200 other organizations. Special Olympics athlete and Global Messenger Frank Stephens posted an open letter to Ann Coulter on the Special Olympics blog on October 23, 2012. His letter expressed concern with a tweet Coulter made using "retard" to describe President Obama. He had written an opinion piece about misuse of the word "retard" posted on The Denver Post's website in 2008.