The other night I was visiting with Rick, a friend whose daughter has Down Syndrome, which is one of the genetic conditions that causes mental retardation. Rick’s daughter has an extra 21st chromosome, that’s the technical cause of common Down Syndrome symptoms like lower than average cognitive function, “epicanthic folds” of the eyelids, and other physical impairments.
Rick is working on a monologue called “The R-Word.” He described it to me as his story of simply trying to use the word “retarded” to mean exactly what it is supposed to mean without implying any negative judgements about the value of the person in question. In other words, he’s fine with accepting that his daughter is retarded and he wishes people would stop being afraid of the term and the people it describes.
Historically, terms like cretin, idiot, and moron meant the same thing as retarded does today. But eventually each term came to be used as an abusive slang epithet to describe people who are not, in fact, retarded. For example, I might say something like: “Geez, that guy in the White House is a retard.” When actually what I mean is: “I think George Bush is a stupid jerk.”
The problem with this is that by using these once-neutral medical terms as insults, we risk applying these same hostile feelings toward people who are actually retarded. Then we’re left with no decent way of describing someone who is retarded without implying contempt.
So I got to thinking about this and wondered if the word “drunk” is maybe used in a similar way. Drunkenness itself is not inherently bad – at least I don’t think so. In fact, many religious traditions have equated a state of deep inebriation with spiritual elevation. In any case, most people get drunk occasionally (Americans, at least) and if asked, probably would say there is nothing wrong with it.
However, the noun form of the word “drunk” has come to have negative connotations, implying a person who is chronically drunk or drunk in a way that is not socially acceptable, as in: “That guy is a drunk.” Or, “Go home, you’re drunk.” These imply that drunkenness is bad. Yet, many people would likewise use the term in a positive way, like: “We all got drunk and had a great time.”
Well, I feel like there is more to explore with this, but hey, it’s Saturday night and I gotta get dressed now so I can go out and get drunk.