Let’s have a little chat about “mongols” and R.E.T.A.R.D.S, shall we?

Photo credit: Murat Ozkasim for Kintsugi Shoot / Model: Kathleen Humberstone

Was that a gasp? Why be so touchy? Why get so easily offended? Political correctness gone mad again? Come on, they’re just words, aren’t they? 

Or are they?

You tell me…

First off, Dr Langdon Down was the first medical professional to even take an interest in individuals like my daughter, back in the 1860s. That’s when he coined his fateful medical phrase to describe them: mongoloid idiots. Little did he know how perennial and adversely impactful that phrase would become. (Although, I could argue that any phrase he used would have suffered the same journey…)

Mongoloid: due to some similar facial characteristics with people from Mongolia. (In those days, who cared about Mongolia, or the feelings of its people!`)

Idiots: because individuals like my daughter were deemed ineducable, totally unable to learn anything (not that anybody had ever bothered to try, mind you).

As a result, for the next 100 years, the term mongol was widely and commonly used in medical textbooks. That is, until Mongolia joined the UN in 1961 and then the WHO in 1965 (which gave them the clout they needed to be heard and especially listened to) and asked for that description to be removed. That’s how the word mongol was officially dropped when referring to people with Down syndrome. Not so easily erasable from those medical textbooks and even less so from people’s psyche after 100 years of damage…

Now, if words were just a juxtaposition of letters, or a series of sounds or hand gestures, why do they trigger such a powerful range of emotions?

Their reach, impact and resonance keep changing (usually for the better) across history and reflect a nation’s views and perceptions at the time.

Here’s a bird’s-eye view on the LEGAL and SOCIAL labelling of disability over the past 100 years (in the UK): Lunatics, unsound of mind, idiots, imbeciles, mentally defective, feeble-minded, mentally deficient, backwards ( I kid you not, when Mencap was founded in 1946, it was originally called the National Association of Parents of Backward Children), subnormal, mentally handicapped, disabled, people with learning difficulties, people with learning disabilities.

As for R.E.T.A.R.D., well, unless you’ve been living on an island with no wi-fi for the past 10 years, you should know this is one of the most offensive and inappropriate insults which unequivocally and inexcusably demeans all people with intellectual disabilities.


Listen to me: 

Words echo your soul, they mirror your heart and they are LOADED. 

The words YOU use are the top of YOUR iceberg.

Their impact can be devastating or elating, liberating or enslaving,  depending on whether they come as Pandora’s box or a Jack-in-the-Box.

So, if you can help it, don’t insult people. If you can’t, do not use the R word, it is poisonous and fully loaded with negative history and highly offensive – even when used as a joke.

You are better than that and there are so many other harmless options out there! Look up https://whatsortsofpeople.wordpress.com/2008/08/11/ableist-language-alternatives/

(For more on the R-word, check https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2017/03/06/the-word-and-challenging-history-words-for-dummies/6heGdgEkMRaUw4MPYVF6yN/story.html#comments)

2 thoughts on “Let’s have a little chat about “mongols” and R.E.T.A.R.D.S, shall we?

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