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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Etymology of the Day: March of the "Tard"s

Posted by on Wed, Mar 28, 2012 at 12:59 PM

Bastard, retard, dastard, dotard... where did all these insulting "-tard" words come from?

First, let's dispense with "leotard," which came from Jules Léotard, a trapeze artist from Toulouse, France—it doesn't fit in with the rest of the words.

The Online Etymological Dictionary says "retard" comes from the Latin retardare, by way of the French verb retarder, which first appears in the 13th century. So how did it come be considered an insulting word?

There is, of course, the whole scientific-political debate about whether certain people should be regarded as "slower" and "behind" or simply differently abled. But there's a linguistic reason, too—lots of insulting nouns in the English language end with -ard. Again, from the Online Etymological Dictionary:

also -art, from O.Fr. -ard, -art, from Ger. -hard, -hart "hardy," forming the second element in many personal names, often used as an intensifier, but in M.H.G. and Du. used as a pejorative element in common nouns, and thus passing into M.E. in bastard, coward, blaffard ("one who stammers"), etc. It thus became a living element in English, e.g. buzzard, drunkard.

Obviously, this isn't the case with inanimate nouns like "custard" and "mustard"—but it tends to work with words that describe people. "Dastard" came along in the 15th century to mean "one who is lazy or dull," probably from a marriage of daze plus -ard. "Drunkard" (originally "droncarde") came along in the 1500s from a similar marriage of drunk plus -ard, and so on.


Comments (18) RSS

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I'd like to add Eric Bedard to this list of pejoratives.
Posted by DOUG. on March 28, 2012 at 1:07 PM · Report this

A blowhard like yourself would know.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on March 28, 2012 at 1:12 PM · Report this
Keister Button 3
Richard, Willard...
Posted by Keister Button on March 28, 2012 at 1:14 PM · Report this
And as English evolves, the suffix has itself come in to common use with "tard."
Posted by TechBear on March 28, 2012 at 1:21 PM · Report this
treacle 5
@2 - Commentard...
Posted by treacle on March 28, 2012 at 1:25 PM · Report this


Ok, I'm registering that domain now!

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on March 28, 2012 at 1:35 PM · Report this
Dougsf 7
The first time I heard the "ard" was my Catholic elementary school choir teacher yelling (I'm assuming Italian?) "ritardando" at us during tempo changes.

As creative as kids can be, all the 'tard epithets I heard flying around the rest of my childhood seemed limp compared to the horror of Catholic elementary school choir.
Posted by Dougsf on March 28, 2012 at 1:41 PM · Report this
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn 8
Motard. A sport well known outside latte land.

Why I would mention it here, I do not know.
Posted by Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn on March 28, 2012 at 1:49 PM · Report this
I'm thinking that "retard" is actually an exception to the "ard" insults. In the other cases (drunkard, and my new favorite, commentard) the ard is added onto the root to make it mean "bad person who [is drunk, comments, etc]", but I think in "retard" the key root is actually the second part of the word, tard, as in "late", so someone whose mental development is behind their calendar age. I think the actual insult should be "you retardard!"
Posted by Eric from Boulder on March 28, 2012 at 2:29 PM · Report this
@ 9. Etymologically speaking, I think you're right. But part of the reason "retard" sounds so bad to us is because it resembles all of these other words that are insults. So while it comes to us from a different etymological path, our ears hear "tard" or "ard" as an insult, whether or not one is intended.

That's setting aside what "retard" actually means, of course, which is a massive part of the way we see the word culturally. But the fact that it shares a sound with so many insult-category words is not, I think, insignificant.
Posted by Brendan Kiley on March 28, 2012 at 2:40 PM · Report this
Fnarf 11
@10, I think you're putting the cart before the horse. The adjective "retarded" was a common word long before the noun "retard" was, initially as a description of a mentally-disabled person, whose mental development is retarded, i.e., slowed. "Retard" as a pejorative came later, after "retarded" started to be used as a casual insult (meaning "dumbass") instead of a technical term.

The sound analogy, maybe, maybe not. They're not pronounced the same; "drunkard", "coward", "bastard" etc. are all pronounced "-ərd", not "-ard" as in "retard".
Posted by Fnarf on March 28, 2012 at 2:55 PM · Report this
ScrawnyKayaker 12
"ritardandy" n, 1. a sharp-dressed, stupid man on medication for ADD.
Posted by ScrawnyKayaker on March 28, 2012 at 3:04 PM · Report this
To the fnarfard @11: I think that that brendard @11 was suggesting with his double negative is that in the evolution of a living language, horses and carts can be hard to distinguish.
Posted by Eric from Boulder on March 28, 2012 at 3:34 PM · Report this
rob! 14
Metardtard hasn't weighed in yet?!
Posted by rob! on March 28, 2012 at 4:51 PM · Report this
Fnarf 15
@13, hey, you there from Bouldard, I prefer the simple "fnard".
Posted by Fnarf on March 28, 2012 at 4:54 PM · Report this
Fnarf 16
@1, if I'm not mistaken Mr. B. pronounces his Frenchy name to rhyme with "gaydar", not "petard" or "retard".
Posted by Fnarf on March 28, 2012 at 4:56 PM · Report this
Muggle 18
Posted by Muggle on March 29, 2012 at 12:26 AM · Report this
Thanks Mr. Kiley, for not slandering my ancestor, Jules Leotard, as Dan "let's invade Iraq" Savage has done repeatedly --- obviously, at least one member of The Stranger staff has some class....

Without that "magnificent man on his flying trapeze" creating the "leotard" we would miss viewing all those wonderful ladies today wearing theirs!

Viva le leotard!
Posted by sgt_doom on March 30, 2012 at 10:50 AM · Report this

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