Don’t say that word

I am fetching one of my teaching props, or retreating to the whiteboard to make a quick diagram … just doing something besides speaking at the moment, when one of my students accidentally knocks over her soda can.

“Sorry! Just a retarded moment there,” she apologises into the sudden quiet, snatching the can upright and then grabbing some tissues from her purse to blot up the dribbles.

I freeze. Suddenly at a loss for words. Not for a lack of things wanting to say, but for having too many things to say, and everything getting into a verbal logjam.


All the momentum of being in my teaching-presenting groove evaporates. It literally evaporates, leaving my skin all clammy, and a chill jolts up from my tailbone, snapping my head and shoulder back in one big tic. My hasty breakfast curdles in my gut as I have visceral flashbacks of childhood abuse.

The R-word.

Omigawd I hate the R-word. I hate being called a Re-tard.

To retard means to hinder or delay. Various of my scholastic and social achievements have been delayed, but that never made the word appropriate. In the vernacular it’s meant as a slur, an insult, an assertion that someone is of subnormal intelligence. It’s the N-word of special education. Once-upon-a-time the word acquired a specific diagnostic meaning; someone who was “mentally retarded” had an IQ of less than 70. But whether or not the term is, or was, applicable to me or anyone else present is not the issue. Not even, and especially not, people with cognitive impairments or learning disabilities want to be called Retards.

She had not called me retarded. She hadn’t even directed the comment at anyone else. I would be extremely upset if she had.

But all of my responses are clogged up together in my verbal output buffer:

Don’t say THAT WORD.

I hate that word.

She wasn’t meaning to be rude; it was simply meant to describe a clumsy moment.

I should speak up and tell her not to use that word; it’s rude and disrespectful.

She’s already embarrassed; that would just compound it if I corrected her in front of everyone.

Jeez I farging hate that word.

I should speak up–

“We all have moments like this,” I start to say, referring to the accidental spillage. And then my brain’s all a-whirl with considerations about social responsibility, and advocacy, and the roles of instructor and student, and the vagaries of linguistics, and how to phrase things declaratively but without being hostile, and …

I couldn’t get any more words out on the subject. That happens sometimes. I don’t like it. I feel … stupid.

Meanwhile, the students have shifted their attention from this brief distraction that, in reality, only lasted 15 or 20 seconds, back to the ongoing program. I’m mentally groping for What should I do next? and need to not get irrevocably Stuck in the moment, socially frozen there, non-speaking and rocking where I stand. I hit the right-arrow key to advance to the next PowerPoint slide. Technology as crutch. I stare at the computer screen, forcibly dragging my attention back on track — what’s next in the spiel?


After class I am sorting out the paperwork and packing back up my Big Bag O’ Props. I am chewing over the lost opportunity. I should have said more. I wanted to say more. But unlike the presentations that I have done dozens of times over, even when I was ill and running on that glazed-over forcefully-cheerful autopilot mode that all stage veterans know, for this moment I had no scripts.

Scripts. I rely upon scripted conversation more than I like to acknowledge that I do. “Small talk” is awkwardly scripted, and those scripts have an alarming tendency to do a 404 Error from my mental RAM. Presentations are largely scripted, though not to the point of being unable to include asides to questions, or to reference previous remarks by students to help them connect concepts. Everyday home chatter is fairly impromptu, but we all know that parents in general also have a stock of some 50 sayings that they use over and over.

I drop off the required paperwork, and schlep my gear out to the car, replaying the scene in my mind. Once I’m in the safe, semi-private zone of my automobile, I start practicing new scripts.

“Please — don’t say that word. It’s rude and disrespectful. Even if you didn’t mean to be rude, it still hurts.”

You can hear the protests already. People always make the same stupid protests, Oh, I didn’t really mean it. It’s not like that. It’s just a saying. I was just joking — can’t you take a joke? You don’t have to take it personally. See — no one cares.

You cannot deny it.

You cannot dismiss it.

You cannot diminish it.

No, it’s NOT “just a saying”. It’s an insult stemming from prejudice. Using that word in such a way continues that prejudice.

No, it’s NOT “just a joke”. Using it continues the abuse of disabled people by ridiculing and Othering them.

No, people DO care — I’m a person, and I care. I’m not the only one who cares.

How else would I take it, impersonally?

“Don’t say that word. It still hurts. I don’t like it. STOP.”


  1. 11 August 2008 at 4:49

    […] the person being described or addressed as Retard has such problems.  As I have described before, Retard is simply an insulting word. Using the word er, retards efforts at eliminating […]

  2. 10 August 2008 at 16:37

    […] 10 August 2008 at 16:04 (Community) (Thankfully this is a much pleasanter alphabetic tour than when we visited the Letter D or the Letter R.) […]

  3. 29 April 2008 at 22:18

    […] I actually put into action my previous plan. It wasn’t long* or eloquent, but it was polite. A student made a remark about doing […]

  4. qw88nb88 said,

    28 April 2008 at 20:58


    Thank you for the kudos, and for asking. If you are using the quote in a printed or scholastic entry, here is how you cite this blog posting; for the “cited” space you use whatever date you accessed the page, e.g. 2008 May 1.

    Andrea. Andrea’s Buzzing About: “Don’t say that word” [Internet]. San Francisco: Andrea’s Buzzing About: c2006-2008 – [cited ____________ ]. Available from: .

    More details on citations to blogs may be found here.

  5. Cenay said,

    28 April 2008 at 19:07

    Andrea, I have to tell you I stop by and lurk frequently on your blog and love your writing style, prose and candid way of speaking. I believe this is one of the better posts I have read about the hurtful and demeaning things people say without thought.

    I would like to link to this post (with your permission).

  6. podblack said,

    24 April 2008 at 13:58

    I have the same problem with students using the word ‘gay’ to mean ‘stupid or pathetic’.

    I found that using a much-loved, popular and proudly-out staff-member as an example (with his permission) to say to students:

    ‘So, you’re saying that Prof. X is therefore equally stupid or pathetic, because he too is “gay”? You can do better – think and extend your vocabulary, avoid offending people with lazy language-use.’

    I found it works. I hope that’s of use.

  7. 23 April 2008 at 11:47

    Found your blog via a link at Reimer Reason. Thanks for this post & for sharing your story. Sometimes the “right” response catches up and haunts you for awhile – the could’ve/would’ves. It sounds like you’re handling it well, preparing for the next time someone uses the R-word. I imagine your response, eventually, will be reflexive: you won’t even need to think about it.

  8. Big Noise said,

    17 April 2008 at 20:12

    My “script” for any bigoted comment is, “I find those words hurtful. Please stop using them.”

    The most common response is, “What words?” In general, people still don’t understand that words like retarded, cripple, bound, handicapped, crazy, etc are degrading to people with disabilities.

    Unfortunately, we still have a way to go in our fight for control of the language that describes us.

    Great blog, Andrea.
    Cilla Sluga

  9. ebohlman said,

    17 April 2008 at 16:10

    Whatever you do, don’t fall into this particular trap, allegedly heard on a TV game show:

    Host: And what do you do, madam?

    Contestant: I’m a homemaker. And please don’t call me “madam.” Where I come from, that means a lady who runs a house of ill repute.

    Host: Oh really, madam?

  10. Melody said,

    16 April 2008 at 21:25

    I know, it’s so frustrating. Especially when you’re young and hear it among other teenagers – you know that they aren’t really trying to be mean, but you also know that it doesn’t make it okay. It’s hard to know how to explain it without them brushing you off as overly sensitive.

  11. qw88nb88 said,

    16 April 2008 at 16:14

    Jodi, thank you for linking!

    One of the odd things about my classes is that most of them are single-session; I don’t have all the same students from one class to the next. With my faceblindness, I don’t even recognise the repeating students, although there will be some names or voices that seem familiar, it takes me a long period of frequent contact to build up an identifier set to be able to semi-reasonably know who’s who. I think she may have signed up for one of my future classes, but I may not be able to tell if it is the same person or not!

  12. Jodi said,

    16 April 2008 at 16:02

    I really love what you wrote. I wonder if there is any way you could share it with the student? I think people who use this word do not have ANY idea about the history behind it and how it affects many of us emotionally. If you don’t mind, I’d like to link to this post on my blog….maybe it will provide more understanding.

  13. Bev said,

    16 April 2008 at 15:22

    The current popularity of this word is truly dismaying. I have made it my personal mission to wipe it from the vocabularies of students at the university I attend. I have not been very successful, but I think I have reached a few people.

    There have been some times, too, when I’ve failed to speak up. Not wanting to offend someone, or just tired of repeating myself. It always feels terrible. I am thinking of maybe printing up a card, asking people to consider their words. Something like, “You wouldn’t use the “N” word, would you? Please don’t use the “R” word either. We are all people”

  14. abfh said,

    16 April 2008 at 14:17

    Before IQ tests were developed, “retarded” was simply a descriptive word that meant slower than average. Einstein wrote that he was retarded because he was slow to speak as a child. In those days, the word didn’t imply that a person was mentally inferior; it just referred to a child’s developmental process. People understood that having a slower than average learning curve didn’t necessarily mean that a child would never learn.

    It’s a shame that the word has turned into an insult, and you’re right, it needs to be purged from the language just like the N-word.

  15. Suzanne said,

    16 April 2008 at 14:07

    A bit teary as I read your brilliant account of the verdammte whirl in your head. Don’t feel badly for how you handled it. You’re working out the script in the event there is a next time.. I know that it would just feel worse to ask someone to please not use the R-word, and have people come back at you with the likely responses(as listed). It is important though, to make the request (Please don’t use that word), if you can. Thank you.

  16. Rachel Silver said,

    16 April 2008 at 13:36

    Fantastic. Thank you.

  17. The Goldfish said,

    16 April 2008 at 10:16

    Retard is an Americanism here; kids use it when they’ve heard it in the movies – I never heard it as a child at all (although we had spaz and spastic, cerebral palsy being inexplicably equated with foolish behaviour). I did hear and still hear individuals with intellectual impariments being described as “a bit backward”, which always struck me as an odd expression, but it’s never said abusively – in fact it’s usually said very gently as if that’s the nicest possible way of putting it.

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