Lunatics and Retards

Yesterday, Congress voted to eliminate the word “lunatic” from federal laws and regulations dealing with mental health. The lone dissenter was this guy here, Representative Louie Gohmert (R-Imbecile).

Personally I don’t have a problem with the word. I probably wouldn’t use it around an actual lunatic, but hell, we all know what it means and there’s no denying there are plenty of crazies around. As a clinical term, however, it’s hopelessly unspecific and outdated. There are so many types and degrees of mental malfunction. What, exactly, is a lunatic? Is it a person with schizophrenia? Is it a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder? It’s a useless term. And this business of associating craziness with the phases of the moon? How 14th Century is that?  Sure, keep lunatic in the popular vocabulary, but strike it from official documents.

“Retard” is different. Not only scrubbed from medical and legal literature, it’s on its way out in everyday conversation as well. It’s come to the point where when someone like Ann Coulter calls the President a retard, the press can’t bring itself to repeat the word, calling it “the r-word” instead. Used as a demeaning name or label for another person, retard’s offensiveness quotient probably ranks right up there with n-word. Of course there’s plenty of hypocrisy around its use. Sarah Palin, for example, has always been quick to denounce people who use it … unless of course it’s her BFF Rush Limbaugh.

Where do words like lunatic and retard come from? They once had specific, clinical meanings and were part of the medical and legal taxonomy of mental illness and disability. The word lunatic derives from lunaticus, meaning “of the moon” or “moonstruck”; literally, a crazy person. The word was sometimes applied to the intellectually disabled, though I think you’ll agree it was always more associated with mental illness. So long as you aren’t using the word to describe your host or another guest, you can talk about lunatics and lunacy without being asked to leave the room.

Say “retard,” though, and you’ll probably be shown the door. Retard has always been used in a demeaning, belittling, and insulting way, but until recently retardation (along with imbecility and feeble-mindedness) was a clinical term for what is now generally called intellectual disability. There are three levels of intellectual disability: mild, moderate, and severe. When I was a kid, people (and doctors too) called those who fit into those three levels morons, imbeciles, and idiots.

We no longer hear the intellectually disabled described as cretins, but the term cretinism, like lunacy and retardation, was once acceptable and widely used. Cretin came from an old French word for Christian and was used to describe the profoundly retarded, who were said to be Christ-like in that they could not sin (a degree of conscious thought being required to knowingly do something bad). Cretinism as a medical term still has a meaning (it has to do with congenital hypothyroidism), but I’d be very surprised to hear any medical professional using it today.

How these words came to be terms of abuse is easy to imagine: there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in calling a bad driver a cretin or a TV pundit a retard (or Louie Gohmert an imbecile). Medically and legally, though, the more we learn about mental and intellectual disability the less use these imprecise words have. It’s like the words we used to use to describe race: negroid, mongoloid, caucasoid … what the hell do those words even mean any more? I’ve come to think that racial terminology is outmoded and should be abandoned: it simply doesn’t describe anything useful. Men and women are men and women, regardless of race.

Lunacy and retardation still describe real conditions, however. Crazy people can present a danger to themselves and others. Intellectually disabled people may not be able to learn beyond a certain level and may not be able to live autonomously; in the most severe cases some will need constant supervision and care. Yes, by all means abandon old words that have morphed into insults, but names for real conditions that must be dealt with will always be necessary.

Will “intellectually disabled” become tomorrow’s “retard”? I can’t see it. Rush Limbaugh’s audience can’t count that many syllables. Because they’re retards.

© 2012, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


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