NOAH ADAMS, host:
This next story is the sort that inspires letter writing. First off, a warning: it contains a lot of offensive language. In fact, it's about offensive language. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on a word that was once a garden-variety insult, and now it might be the next candidate for bleeping.
NEDA ULABY: The word is "retard," and it's one E. Duff Wrobbel used to use occasionally. Then his daughter was born with Down Syndrome. She was a baby when he had her in a car seat and another car cut him off. Like anyone else, Wrobbel started yelling.
Professor E. DUFF WROBBEL (Speech Communications, Southern Illinois University): And I actually said that word and then I stopped my car and got teary. And I thought, oh my gosh, I can't believe I just said that.
ULABY: Wrobbel started a passionate anti-"retard" campaign. To him, it's hate speech.
Prof. WROBBEL: I'd like to get it to where it's bleeped off the television. I've written to every commissioner on the FCC. I've written to the president. I've written to Oprah five times.
ULABY: And Wrobbel has made a few inroads, alongside the activists who made retard unacceptable in medical and social service circles. There, the term intellectual disabilities is preferred. They organize against movies like last summer's hit film "Tropic Thunder." In one memorable exchange, two movie stars discuss the kind of roles that can win you Oscars.
(Soundbite of movie "Tropic Thunder")
Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY JR. (Actor): (as Kirk Lazarus) Everybody knows you never go full retard.
Mr. BEN STILLER (Actor): (as Tugg Speedman) What do you mean?
Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (as Kirk Lazarus) Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, "Rain Man," look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Tom Hanks, "Forrest Gump." Slow, yes. Braces on his legs. That ain't retarded. You went full retard, man.
ULABY: The protest against "Tropic Thunder" did not have much effect on the movie. But not long ago, film critic Eric Snider was reviewing a DVD for a stinker of a film called "Miss March."
(Soundbite of movie "Miss March")
Unidentified Man #1: Hey gang, we're here today to talk to you about...
ULABY: "Miss March" is an insult comedy, that's all it is. It came out in theaters last spring, but Snider realized it was changed for DVD.
Mr. ERIC SNIDER (Film Critic): I noticed a scene where it's a couple of abstinence promoters are telling horror stories to middle-school students.
(Soundbite of movie "Miss March")
Unidentified Man #1: He got syphilis.
Unidentified Woman #1: Then she got pregnant and because she smoked cigarettes, the baby came out a crackhead.
Mr. SNIDER: It was obvious that the actress's lips did not say crackhead.
ULABY: They said retard.
Mr. SNIDER: It added up to about I think about five instances in the movie where obviously they had re-dubbed it for the DVD.
ULABY: And it's not just movies rethinking retard as an easy laugh. A few months ago, popular sex advice columnist Dan Savage renounced his use of the word.
Mr. DAN SAVAGE (Sex Columnist): You know, I just sat down to write the column, and I'd used the word retard in a column recently, and I was sorting through the mail and there was a handful of letters taking me to task. And I thought, all right, I won't use it anymore. I'll use a new word. I hope you like this one better.
ULABY: The new word was leotard. As in, you are totally leotarded.
Mr. SAVAGE: It was just me being a jerk, frankly. You know, I've heard people now use "the R word" in reference to retard, and it just seems so pansy-assed, if I may use that phrase.
ULABY: Savage is gay, and he knows how it feels to be the target of insults and slurs. What's funny is that gay and retard occupy the same linguistic position when it comes to schoolyard trash talk.
Mr. JESSE SHEIDLOWER (Editor, Oxford English Dictionary): To mean bad, you know: that movie was totally gay.
ULABY: Jesse Sheidlower is an editor for the Oxford English Dictionary. He traced the use of retard as an insult to a late 1950s book that refers to "Playboy" magazine.
Mr. SHEIDLOWER: And a character says, well, that Hefner jazz is for retarded jockstraps.
ULABY: Retarded is an all-purpose putdown, says Sheidlower - same goes for gay. They don't mean something is literally intellectually disabled or literally homosexual. And that differentiates those words from racist slurs. "Atlantic Monthly" columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes on issues like race and language.
Mr. TA-NEHISI COATES (Columnist, The Atlantic Monthly): I actually love the word nigger. I actually like it a lot. I don't like it used towards me in certain contexts but I think nigger's a great word. I think it's a fine word.
ULABY: Coates says in order for language to become socially unacceptable, it needs to be linked with the kind of bigoted behavior no one wants to be associated with.
Mr. COATES: As a young man, I used the word chink all the time. Fag - another word I used. It was nothing for me to deploy that word. We referred to the corner store as the chink store and thought nothing of it. Never considered it.
ULABY: And Coates says, in order for retard to be considered inappropriate, there needs to be a fundamental shift in empathy for people with intellectual disabilities.
Mr. COATES: What happens is if you're lucky, you come to understand that those words describe actual human beings.
ULABY: Until then, retard may continue as a commonplace zinger, but it seems people are beginning to think twice about it.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
ADAMS: And how do you feel about the R word? Are there other insults you're thinking twice about? We're talking about it on our Web site. You can join Neda Ulaby at npr.org.