Letter-Words

They're just too awful for delicate ears.

Friday evening I got an email from my kids’ school with the subject line “Message from the Fairfax County School Board.” The body of the email, in full:

It has come to our attention that an inappropriate word was used at our October 20, 2022, School Board meeting. At-large Board Member Karen Keys-Gamarra has apologized for using an ableist slur that is offensive to not only the disability community but to our entire community. To be clear, it is unacceptable under any circumstances to use that word and we will be meeting to discuss this matter with her further.

We apologize for the hurt and offense this incident has caused in our community. The School Board is committed to fostering a responsive, caring, and inclusive culture where all feel valued, supported, and hopeful. The School Board Governance Manual establishes expectations of school board members to act with respect to community members.

So offensive, in fact, that it couldn’t even be mentioned in the email.

This morning, I got a clue via a report from WTOP News (“Fairfax Co. school board member apologizes after using slur in hot mic moment“):

Fairfax County School Board member Karen Keys-Gamarra was heard using a slur about people with disabilities during a hot mic moment at the board’s Thursday meeting.

Board members were sorting out how to let an audience member speak for someone who couldn’t be in attendance when at-large member Keys-Gamarra can be heard saying “We cannot be this r—-.”

Keys-Gamarra sent a statement to WTOP, saying she deeply regretted using the word.

“While I did not intend an offensive word to refer to any particular person or the parent community, I did insult my fellow school board members, and in turn, offended members of the community,” Keys-Gamarra wrote.

“I thought the board should allow a parent to finish her point and was frustrated with the outcome,” the statement continued. “I know that word has historically been used to ridicule and demean others in ways that run counter to my beliefs and the work I’ve championed as a School Board member.

Keys-Gamarra concluded by saying “that’s not what is in my heart,” and asked for forgiveness from her fellow board members and the community.

A group serving special needs kids and their parents in the county said that Keys-Gamarra also reached out to them to apologize.

I went out on a limb and guessed the word in question is retarded. Sure enough, a Google search with her name and the word produces a few results—although several not in relation to the incident itself, including an undated news roundup page on the FCPS website and the minutes of a Fairfax County Planning Commission Schools Committee from 2017. So, apparently, it’s possible to spell out the word on official county websites, including the school’s, but not in county emails or local news websites.

To be clear, Keys-Gamarra shouldn’t have used that word in a public meeting. Even though she didn’t use it to describe a person with a developmental disability, the word is widely considered a slur.

But is it so offensive that it can’t be spelled out?

Surely, it’s less offensive than the N-word. While our historical treatment of those with severe mental disabilities was pretty horrific, I don’t view it as comparably socially charged.

Then there’s the F-word, which most adults I know use with regularity but is nonetheless considered too vulgar for polite company.

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, there’s now an R-word.

Fifty years ago, George Carlin unveiled his famous list of “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” While you can in fact say at least three of them on network television at this point, at least thee of them are now letter-words, including the aforementioned F-word.

There are, at most, 26 possible words that we can deem unsayable under this convention.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tony W says:

    That particular word is only forbidden because it has been used outside its proper use to refer to the thing it describes (quite literally). When you compare somebody who does something stupid to somebody who has Down’s Syndrome, you risk pushing that term into the evil list.

    “Retarded” literally means moving slower than typical – that’s it.

    The problem with moving these words to the bad list is that it won’t be too many decades before calling somebody “differently-abled” or something like that becomes equally devastating on the playground.

    6
  2. Jon says:

    @Tony W:

    The problem with moving these words to the bad list is that it won’t be too many decades before calling somebody “differently-abled” or something like that becomes equally devastating on the playground.

    Except that’s not a problem, or rather it’s only a problem if you want it to be one. Language changes, as do people. We’ll learn and move on.

    4
  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Between the religious prudes on the right and the woke prudes of the left, colorful language will meet its end before we all drown due to global warming. What would Chaucer say?

    One place I worked, the women of the customer service chose to curb their use of a favored expletive, anyone using said word needed to put a quarter in kitty. Not sure how good the program was at cleaning up the language, but they usually collected enough in a month for a round at a local.

    2
  4. Franklin says:

    @Jon: The thing is, if I did something stupid now, as in today, and a co-worker joked, “nevermind him, he’s differently-abled,” everyone would understand that to be a pejorative. Point being, if you want to make someone feel bad, it’s still possible no matter how much our language is policed. Maybe that co-worker would be considered insensitive, or maybe they’d be considered subversive and edgy. It depends on a lot of things, it just seems like we’re spending too much energy focusing on gotchas and that nobody can ever feel bad for a millisecond. What about the feelings of the councilmember who was mortified? Couldn’t somebody have pulled her aside privately instead of blasting out a news release to fully embarrass her?

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  5. Franklin says:

    And for all my fellow musicians here, we’re still using ritards until somebody rewrites a few centuries’ worth of sheet music.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    A guy just down the road in Punta Gorda was zealously displaying F*** Biden signs and flags, as were a number of people. The city passed an ordinance prohibiting public display of offensive language. This guy made a hobby out of suing the city while continuing his displays and being assessed fines. I spoke to him briefly one evening. He was sitting in a car in a parking lot projecting both F Biden and vituperation of local officials on a building wall and I walked over to see what he was doing. He talked about government officials are evil and he’s got his rights. My end of the conversation was muttered under my breath as I turned away.

    He won his lawsuit. He does have a Free Speech right to be offensive. As with the Second Amendment, proof that you have a legal right to do things you really shouldn’t do. Proves the guy is a, dare I say it?, a r..a rrr… rrrrrRepublican. .

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  7. CSK says:

    I remember years ago visiting an elementary school in which a class of officially designated slow learners, some with behavioral problems, referred to themselves cheerfully as “The Retards.” No one else did, certainly not the teachers and administrators.

    I wonder if the kids would be allowed to do that now.

    1
  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jon: Don’t be such a differently abled. You know exactly what he means, and he has a point.

    ETA: (Secretly hoping I’ve started a new trend in name calling. 🙁 )

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  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Between the religious prudes on the right and the woke prudes of the left, colorful language will meet its end before we all drown due to global warming.

    Never gonna happen. Colorful language will always flow freely on construction sites everywhere.

    2
  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: I wouldn’t think so, but it probably explains why we try to keep the “slow learners” and “behavior problems” in separate cohorts now–the slow learners are too suggestible.

    1
  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Not to mention Tarantino movies.

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    Every chance I get I try to show the little ones how to startle their parents with forbidden words.
    I tell them that I am going to teach them two words that their parents never want to hear them say.
    Just as mom and dad are looking at me with shock and scorn I ask the rascals:
    “Do you know how to say car keys?”

    1
  13. steve says:

    I still use it at work as I take care of a lot of special needs kids and some adults. Mentally challenged can mean way too many things to be especially useful. The term retarded tells my team more precisely what we are dealing with.

    Steve

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  14. Mister Bluster says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:..Colorful language will always flow freely on construction sites everywhere.

    Those will be the sites where dikes and levees and retaining walls are built to hold back the rising tides.

  15. Slugger says:

    Words often do not have only a straightforward correspondence with their dictionary meaning, and in communication there is a spectrum with shades of meaning that comes across. “He is an animal” might be used to convey that someone is an exceptionally talented athlete or a dangerous harasser of the weak or an uncultured oaf. In face to face conversation we give off lots of nonverbal clues to designate our preferred meanings and nuances. When a child calls another child “retarded” the child is not trying to convey the results of psychometric testing but trying to say,”You are worthless and deserve to be despised.”
    On the internet, much of the richness of discourse is pruned away resulting in frequent misunderstanding. And fuck you sideways if you don’t get my message.

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  16. MarkedMan says:

    To expand on a minor point in the OP, I find the NYTimes to be a parody of itself in this respect. It can devote multiple articles to this or that public official being drummed out of office for offensive language and never once actually mention what the person said. This is childish and a disservice to their readers.

    3
  17. Richard Gardner says:

    I find the the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter that ban folks for supposedly bad words offensive. You get a warning for saying retarded timing (as opposed to advanced timing) in discussing automotive engine controls. Somehow “nuke” is suddenly a not nice word too (I’m in a couple of nuclear engineering groups). Remember the A-OK finger sign BS? Now all scuba divers are hidden racists.

    1
  18. Andy says:

    Even though she didn’t use it to describe a person with a developmental disability, the word is widely considered a slur.

    How widely is open for debate.

    But is it so offensive that it can’t be spelled out?

    This “Voldemortization” of language (TM) is dumb IMO, and creating these exceptions to the use/mention distinction says more about the people making these distinctions than it does about the words themselves and their meaning.

    2
  19. Andy says:

    @steve:

    I still use it at work as I take care of a lot of special needs kids and some adults. Mentally challenged can mean way too many things to be especially useful. The term retarded tells my team more precisely what we are dealing with.

    I’m genuinely surprised to hear that. I do know that the term is still commonly used, but not in a medical context.

  20. Jay L Gischer says:

    You know, a few days ago there was a discussion of the current situation with the LA city council and what certain members were caught saying on tape. It was asserted that “people talk like that”. Curiously enough, the people I grew up with 50 plus years ago, didn’t talk like that.

    In contrast, I heard the words “retard” and “retarded” used, in this way, as pejoratives, all the time. It bothered me then, it bothers me now.

    That said, I don’t police people for it, generally, unless it’s a situation where I’m the host, or the chair, or whatever. Where I’m the boss, and thus more responsible for what other people say. I wouldn’t allow it on a blog I run, for instance. (I do recognize the use/mention distinction, though).

    1
  21. wr says:

    @Andy: “This “Voldemortization” of language (TM) is dumb IMO”

    Since we disagree on so much, I thought it was worth mentioning that on this point we are in total agreement.

    1
  22. steve says:

    Andy- You made me realize that I dont know what the young guys use. I have a small core of nurses I have trained to work with these pts and we all know what it means having used it among us for 15-20 years.

    Steve

    1
  23. Gustopher says:

    At-large Board Member Karen Keys-Gamarra has apologized for using an ableist slur that is offensive to not only the disability community but to our entire community.

    Many people do not have mothers, or suffer from some sexual dysfunction. It was very rude and ableist of Karen to refer to people as “a bunch of motherfuckers.”

    1
  24. Gustopher says:

    @steve: You may discover that you are the old fossil wandering around using old timey slurs because he doesn’t know any better.

    That would be fun.

  25. Grewgills says:

    This is all about adult usage, kids have already moved on. The current same meaning pejorative here among at least middle and high school kids is sped both for referring to themselves or others.
    Referring to some concepts by labels associated with groups of people is very difficult, if not impossible, to really police because the new label will quickly take on a pejorative quality.
    That is simply not true of all such words. When society moved away from the worst of the pejorative words for racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity the new accepted words didn’t take on that pejorative quality, at least not beyond a small subset of hard core bigots.
    Anecdotal observation over the past 20+ years teaching 12-20 year olds leads me to believe that changes in language accompany changes in attitude and it appears that there is, at the least, a small positive feedback loop between language and attitudes.

    1
  26. Andy says:

    @steve:

    Andy- You made me realize that I dont know what the young guys use. I have a small core of nurses I have trained to work with these pts and we all know what it means having used it among us for 15-20 years.

    Again, that’s surprising to me. But in the bubble I live in (mostly ex-military with post-graduate degrees and working-class techy entrepreneurs) it’s a friendly pejorative. I haven’t heard it used in a serious context in quite a while.

    I skimmed over this before:

    At-large Board Member Karen Keys-Gamarra has apologized for using an ableist slur that is offensive to not only the disability community but to our entire community. To be clear, it is unacceptable under any circumstances to use that word and we will be meeting to discuss this matter with her further.

    I do not understand the supposed necessity for not only a prostrating apology but also meeting to “discuss the matter further.” In the normal world, adults apologize and move on.