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In my diary To Debate, or to Denigrate?, I list a number of words that are used to refer to someone with a mental health condition.  My intent was to raise awareness of how these words are used in everyday conversation, where they originated, and how the use of such words are perceived by people with a mental health condition.

Today I want to go through the same exercise with words that have their origins in referring to people who have a cognitive disability.  I hope you will follow me below the fold.

First, we need to know what a cognitive disability is:

The concept of cognitive disabilities is extremely broad, and not always well-defined. In loose terms, a person with a cognitive disability has greater difficulty with one or more types of mental tasks than the average person.
These "mental tasks" are many types generally speaking, but here are the major areas. 1) There can be a difficulty with the input process for information.  2) There can be a difficulty with storage of information.  3) There can be a the difficulty in the output process of information, i.e. taking information and expressing it in some manner.  4)  There can be a difficulties with executive functions such as an ability to control ones anger, other emotions, or decision making.  5)  There can be any combination of 1 through 4.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I am not a neurologist, a psychologist, or any other "expert of the brain".  I did however, have 13 1/2 years of work experience in working with people who had mental health and cognitive conditions.  In addition, this isn't a diary about the causation of cognitive disabilities or the methods of dealing with day-to-day issues faced by people with cognitive conditions.  Having said that, there are two things to know about cognitive conditions.  Cognitive conditions can be from an extremely wide range of causes.  In addition, the severity of cognitive conditions can very from very mild to very severe in how they affect a person's functional abilities.

I stated in my last diary that I was not attempting to be the "word police".  Someone in the comments worried that I might get some backslash from the use of "word police" which just goes to show how difficult it is to choose a word or phrase.  Let me be clear, I am only trying to raise awareness of words that are used in everyday conversation that have their origin in referring to someone who I refer to as having a cognitive condition or disability.  As you have noticed, I use condition and disability interchangeably.  

Here is the list:

retarded (adj.)
    1810, pp. adjective from retard (v.). In childhood development sense, "mentally slow," attested from 1895 (cf. Italian tardivi).

retard (v.) Look up retard at
    late 15c., from French retarder (13c.), from Latin retardare (see retardation). Related: Retarded; retarding. The noun is recorded from 1788 in the sense "retardation, delay;" from 1970 in offensive meaning "retarded person," originally American English, with accent on first syllable.

idiot (n.) Look up idiot at
    early 14c., "person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning;" also in Middle English "simple man, uneducated person, layman" (late 14c.), from Old French idiote "uneducated or ignorant person" (12c.), from Latin idiota "ordinary person, layman; outsider," in Late Latin "uneducated or ignorant person," from Greek idiotes "layman, person lacking professional skill" (opposed to writer, soldier, skilled workman), lit. "private person (as opposed to one taking part in public affairs)," used patronizingly for "ignorant person," from idios "one's own" (see idiom).

blithering (adj.) Look up blithering at
    1880, prp. adjective (from the first typically with idiot) from blither (v.) "to talk nonsense." From 1872 as a verbal noun

cretin (n.) Look up cretin at
    1779, from French crétin (18c.), from Alpine dialect crestin, "a dwarfed and deformed idiot" of a type formerly found in families in the Alpine lands, a condition caused by a congenital deficiency of thyroid hormones, from Vulgar Latin *christianus "a Christian," a generic term for "anyone," but often with a sense of "poor fellow." Related: Cretinism (1801).

imbecile (adj.) Look up imbecile at
    1540s, imbecille "weak, feeble" (especially in reference to the body), from Middle French imbecile (15c.), from Latin imbecillus "weak, feeble" (see imbecility). Sense shifted to mental weakness from mid-18c. As a noun, "feeble-minded person," it is attested from 1802. Traditionally an adult with a mental age of roughly 6 to 9 (above an idiot but beneath a moron).

fool (n.) Look up fool at
    late 13c., "silly or stupid person," from Old French fol "madman, insane person; idiot; rogue; jester," also "blacksmith's bellows," also an adjective meaning "mad, insane" (12c., Modern French fou), from Latin follis "bellows, leather bag" (see follicle); in Vulgar Latin used with a sense of "windbag, empty-headed person." Cf. also Sanskrit vatula- "insane," lit. "windy, inflated with wind."

        The word has in mod.Eng. a much stronger sense than it had at an earlier period; it has now an implication of insulting contempt which does not in the same degree belong to any of its synonyms, or to the derivative foolish. [OED]

moron (n.) Look up moron at
    1910, medical Latin, from Greek (Attic) moron, neuter of moros "foolish, dull, sluggish, stupid," probably cognate with Sanskrit murah "idiotic." Latin morus "foolish" is a loan-word from Greek. Adopted by the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded with a technical definition "adult with a mental age between 8 and 12;" used as an insult since 1922 and subsequently dropped from technical use. Linnæus had introduced morisis "idiocy."

        The feeble-minded may be divided into: (1) Those who are totally arrested before the age of three so that they show the attainment of a two-year-old child or less; these are the idiots. (2) Those so retarded that they become permanently arrested between the ages of three and seven; these are imbeciles. (3) Those so retarded that they become arrested between the ages of seven and twelve; these were formerly called feeble-minded, the same term that is applied to the whole group. We are now proposing to call them morons, this word being the Greek for "fool." The English word "fool" as formerly used describes exactly this grade of child--one who is deficient in judgment or sense. [Henry H. Goddard, in Journal of Proceedings and Addresses" of the National Education Association of the United States, July 1910]

moronic (adj.) Look up moronic at
    1911, from moron + -ic. Related: Moronically.

stupid (adj.) Look up stupid at
    1540s, "mentally slow," from Middle French stupide, from Latin stupidus "amazed, confounded," lit. "struck senseless," from stupere "be stunned, amazed, confounded," from PIE *(s)tupe- "hit," from root *(s)teu- (see steep (adj.)).

    Native words for this idea include negative compounds with words for "wise" (cf. Old English unwis, unsnotor, ungleaw), also dol (see dull), and dysig (see dizzy). Stupid retained its association with stupor and its overtones of "stunned by surprise, grief, etc." into mid-18c. The difference between stupid and the less opprobrious foolish roughly parallels that of German töricht vs. dumm but does not exist in most European languages.

numbnuts (n.) Look up numbnuts at
    stupid or ineffectual person, by 1971, U.S. slang, from numb (adj.) + nuts "testicles;" with suggestion of impotence.

dickhead (n.) Look up dickhead at
    "stupid, contemptible person," by 1969, from dick in the "penis" sense + head.

dork (n.) Look up dork at
    "stupid person," 1967, originally U.S. student slang, perhaps from earlier meaning "penis" (1964), itself probably an alteration of dick. Related: Dorky; dorkiness.

meshuga (adj.) Look up meshuga at
    "mad, crazy, stupid," 1892, from Hebrew meshugga, part. of shagag "to go astray, wander." The adjective has forms meshugener, meshugenah before a noun.

dumbass (n.) Look up dumbass at
    by 1959, from dumb "stupid" + ass (n.2).

(n.) Look up nitwit at
    "stupid person," 1922, probably from nit "nothing," from dialectal German or Yiddish, from Middle Low German (see nix) + wit (n.).

bird-brain (n.) Look up bird-brain at
    also birdbrain, 1936, slang, "stupid person," also perhaps suggestive of flightiness, from bird (n.1) + brain (n.).

Now a word like "idiot" can be somewhat problematic.  As you can see from above it has two different connotations.  Lets look at it again.
idiot (n.) Look up idiot at
    early 14c., "person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning;" also in Middle English "simple man, uneducated person, layman" (late 14c.), from Old French idiote "uneducated or ignorant person" (12c.), from Latin idiota "ordinary person, layman; outsider," in Late Latin "uneducated or ignorant person," from Greek idiotes "layman, person lacking professional skill" (opposed to writer, soldier, skilled workman), lit. "private person (as opposed to one taking part in public affairs)," used patronizingly for "ignorant person," from idios "one's own" (see idiom).
The first meaning listed is "person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning".  The second meaning refers to an "uneducated person."  With respect to how it is used here at DKos, I think it is safe to say that it is the former usage that people are striving to connote and not the latter although it could be either or both.

Language and words do evolve.  I particularly like the article You Say 'Bitch' Like It's A Bad Thing: Examining the Implications of the Notorious Word.  The author goes through the history of the B-word.  It is fascinating how it has been re-purposed to attempt to reduce or eliminate the impact of the word.  Yet, in the end, the hurtfulness of the B-word cannot be completely eliminated.  The history lives on with all of its ugly past trailing behind it.

The same is true of the words I listed above as well as the words in by previous diary.  You may see a few people who attempt to take the word "retard" and try to make it a badge of honor, but I do not see very many people doing it.  I do not see them being very successful in their endeavor.

Only the nastiest and most spiteful person would use the words above when talking to a person with a clearly noticeable cognitive disability, or use such words in their presents.  Yet these words are used every day to questions someone's intellectual abilities, to equate the person the user disagrees with or has contempt for with a group of people who most often are the way the are due to no fault of their own.

Yes, I am encouraging the abolition of the use of these words.  I am encouraging this abolition through self-regulation via a process of self-analysis of what the user is actually wanting to convey in their writing or speaking.  If the intent is to question the person's lack of knowledge or education in a matter, isn't that what should be said in a clear and concise way without loaded words?  The same goes for a person's ability to reason through an argument, or a person's intellectual honesty.

When heard or read by someone who has a cognitive disability, or a friend or family member, these words cause pain.  They make the person affected feel less a person.  They make the person feel unwanted and not a part of the larger society.  They have the same affects as any other bigoted word, be it racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other intolerant word.  Again, this may not be the intentions of the user of the word but these are the affects upon the person who has the disability or someone close to them.

As always, thank you for your time and kind consideratio

Originally posted to kaminpdx on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 01:47 PM PST.

Also republished by Mental Health Awareness and Courtesy Kos.

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