The Pejoration of Low Intelligence Terms

            Critic Sharon Taylor states in her scholarly article, Terms for Low Intelligence, that, “expressions denoting low intelligence seem to be nearly as abundant in American speech as those describing the most fundamental aspects of human existence” (197).  Taylor goes on to explain that expressions denoting low intelligence fall into two categories: euphemistic, neutral terms and dysphemistic, humorous terms (197). Taylor then gives large lists of words that fall under either of the aforementioned categories. Two words mentioned in each of these categories have pejorated; these words are, silly and retarded.

            The word silly has a rich etymological history which shows how the word has pejorated over time. About the year 1272 the word silly, which was spelled seoly, meant happy, blissful; fortunate, lucky, well-omened, and auspicious ( Later, the definition changed or adapted to include meanings such as pious, holy, and good ( From the years 1290 to 1884, silly’s definition and meaning began to deteriorate into a negative term. This deterioration or pejoration began when silly’s definition changed from holy to helpless, then from helpless to foolish and simple ( Today, we often hear the term used in its more negative manner; however, Taylor states that words, such as silly, are, “composed of sentimental and literary expressions, many of which connote purity or innocence.” (200). Taylor’s statement makes sense when the term silly refers to a younger child, but when it refers to an adult the word then becomes pejorative and demeaning.

            Another example of an intelligence term that has become pejorative overtime, is the word retarded. In its earliest use, retarded referred to someone or something being hindered, impeded, or delayed physically or mentally. The O.E.D gives an example of an elevated usage of the term retarded: “A number of virus diseases manifest themselves by retarded growth, discoloration, and leaf curl” (, emphasis mine). As time went on, the meaning of retarded became less scientific, less formal, and more derogatory. In the years 1895-2004 retarded developed a negative connotation and was not (and is still not) used in its formal sense ( Today, the negative sense of the term retarded is used to insult someone: by calling a person retarded one is accusing that person of being feeble-minded, dim, and deficient ( For those people who do suffer from learning, intellectual, and developmental disabilities, the loose use of the word retarded is incredibly offensive and insensitive; therefore, the word has fallen out of fashion among many professionals (

            The sensitivity developed, because of the misuse, abuse, and pejoration of intelligence terms, such as silly and retarded, reveal some interesting aspects about humanity’s pride. Taylor states:

            It is not difficult to understand why terms for low intelligence make such satisfactory invectives: western man values intelligence so highly that to be accused of stupidity is an insult indeed. The amusement perhaps arises from a combination of anxiety and relief, which has often been suggested as the main    ingredient of humor—anxiety about one’s own intelligence when one is confronted with mental deficiency in others, and relief because one has the       assurance of feeling more intelligent by comparison. (202)

Humankind’s insecurities and competitions create pejoration within their own language, especially when it comes to the measurement of their own intelligence. Insecurity about one’s intelligence exists within children and their schooling. Taylor states:

            That educational terminology contains a large number of expressions for low intelligence that are misleading or lacking in clarity is not an accident. Indeed, the value of these terms often lies in their vagueness, because within the schools, teachers and administrators are constantly searching for means by which they can communicate about mentally deficient students without the children or their  peers being aware of the subject under discussion. To be effective, terms so employed must be vague; but despite their vagueness, the other children soon discover their meaning and begin to use them in a derogatory manner. (198)

Vagueness, therefore, adds to the pejoration of terms and feeds the insecurity monster that dwells within society. Silly and retarded are two terms that have pejorated in a very drastic way. What once was considered to mean holy now means foolish; what once meant impeded now means stupid. These terms have changed drastically because of humankind’s pride, insecurities, and need to be politically correct.



Works Cited

"Retarded." Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

"Seely." Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

Taylor, Sharon H. "Terms for Low Intelligence." American Speech (1974). Web. 7 Dec. 2011.