Did Rahm or Rush Use the R-word?

The word “retarded” is not the commonplace it once was. Today we rightly refer to people with mental disabilities in other ways. One severe problem with “retarded” as a noun (i.e., the collective noun “the retarded”) is that it is easily used too generally as a label for those with mental disabilities—as if having a disability is their essential attribute, the feature that defines them as human beings.

The word “retard” is even worse. It picks out an individual from a presumed class of people—”the retarded”—and restricts reference to that person in terms of his or her disability. This is his or her identity, from the speaker’s point of view.

I haven’t heard “retard” used in quite awhile. I guess it has to do with the company I keep. The last real recollection I have of hearing “retard” used goes back to junior high or high school days, when smarmy and juvenile talk could be expected. It could also be expected that the juveniles who favored such talk would eventually grow out of it. They would be re-socialized to speak with greater understanding, sensitivity, and respect.

Some, of course, fail their course in re-socialization. A recent notorious example of this is Rahm Emmanuel, as exposed by his smarmy and juvenile use of the word “retarded.” He was, it’s been reported, referring to some pesky Democrats from the extreme left when he called some of their proposals “retarded.”

There can be little doubt that Rahm used “the r-word.” And he used it to refer to a group of individuals. To emphasize his disapproval, Rahm actually used the fuller (may I say, more pregnant) phrase “f—ing retarded” (but without the hyphen).

Sarah Palin, from alleged concern for greater sensitivity among the nation’s leaders to proper respect for certain individuals, called for Rahm’s resignation. I guess what she really wanted was for the president to fire him.

In due course, Rahm did what politicians do—he apologized . . . sort of.

Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh attempted some fun at Rahm’s expense. In a convoluted radio diatribe, in which the words “retard” and “retarded” appeared repeatedly, Rush made sport of Rahm’s politically incorrect gaffe. By means of some tortured linguistic gyrations, Rush suggested that there was irony in Rahm’s apology to the “retards” and not to the Dems who were the original target of Rahm’s ire and whom he meant to smear.

As if this sequence of events has not been juvenile enough, some are charging Sarah Palin with special pleading (not that they know enough to call it that). They allege that her strong censure of Rahm is incompatible with giving Rush (a friendly conservative) a pass.

Several of Palin’s enlightened critics, including Arianna Huffington, Andrea Mitchell, Margaret Carlson, Rachel Maddow, Kirsten Powers, and others, have insinuated that Palin is a hypocrite. But these people make one very simple mistake. They confuse use and mention.

Let me explain.

When you utter the r-word, you may be doing one of two different things. You may be using the r-word, or you may be mentioning the r-word. You can say the r-word without using the r-word. When you say a word without using the word, it’s called “mention.” When you do this in writing, as I have just done, the custom is to place the word in quotations marks. The quotation marks indicate either that you are quoting someone, or that you are talking about the word, not the thing referred to by the word.

Uttering the r-word to refer is to use the r-word. That’s what Rahm was doing. He was unequivocally referring. In calling certain members of his party “f—ing retarded,” he used the r-word to speak of them. He was not talking about the word or someone’s use of the word.

What was Rush doing? Was he using the r-word? He was, to be sure, talking about Rahm’s use of the word. In this respect, Rush was mentioning the word. It would take some close exegesis to determine whether there is in Rush’s remarks some use of the r-word, in addition to his repeated mention of it. That would be, I think, both a hopeless and a thankless task.

Even if it could be argued that Limbaugh’s grammar reflects an occasional use of the word, over and above his frequent mention of it, it wouldn’t be at all clear that this was intended. As he said repeatedly on air, he was quoting Rahm Emanuel. (For the transcript, go here.)

The whole thing can be sorted out by noting a simple distinction, that between use and mention. Whereas Rahm used, Rush merely mentioned. On that basis, Palin is no hypocrite for faulting Rahm and blessing the tribe of Limbaugh.

We all intuitively understand this distinction. The pundits (including Palin’s critics) have urged a referendum on saying the words “retard,” “retards,” and “retarded.” They have resorted to using “the r-word” as a substitute for “retard,” “retards,” and “retarded.” The locution “the r-word” has its own reference. That reference is itself a word—either “retard,” “retards,” or “retarded.” These words are harmless when mentioned, though it is ill-advised to use them. Resorting to “the r-word” instead of mentioning “retard,” “retards,” or “retarded” is a redundancy. And it’s silly. Used consistently as an absolute substitute, the time will come when no one will even know what the “r-word” is.

Notice, the words “retard,” “retards,” and “retarded” appear frequently in this post. But nowhere in this post do I use any of these words. They are only mentioned. And they have to be mentioned if we’re going to talk about them, even if our ultimate aim is to expunge them from the English vocabulary.

I haven’t invented the distinction drawn in this post. As I’ve said, it’s a distinction intuitively grasped and used even by people who talk only of “using” words. What they mean, in the most general sense of “using” is “saying.” But saying is not using, in the strict sense. Saying may be using or it may be mentioning.

You would think that such a handy distinction would have been worked out with some clarity. You would be right. Reference and sense, use and mention are all topics of interest to philosophers. Numerous reference works in philosophy, and specialized works in logic and the philosophy of language, clarify these concepts and their use.

Once you are clear about this distinction, you may be surprised, amused, or horrified by the frequency of its infraction and the needless confusion that results.


About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

One Response to Did Rahm or Rush Use the R-word?

  1. Alex says:

    Philosophy… as it should be. Thanks, Doug.


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