When dynamics and musical expression markings begin appearing in my students' music, I know that it's only a matter of time until the words ritardando or ritard are introduced, and I brace myself for giving the explanation. "Ritard? Retard?" each student invariably giggles, as I try to be polite and still draw the correlation: "Well, yes, it is similar to the slang term 'retard.' Both words come from the same root word in Latin, 'retardāre,' which means to delay or hold back or slow down. A 'retarded' person's brain may work more slowly than yours - his development may be held back. And in music, we use the word ritard to mean a slowing or holding back of the tempo." But the student often hasn't heard a word I've said - he or she is still giggling about the similarity to the word 'retard.'
Yesterday was different. Alex is finishing up the song Long, Long Ago, and yesterday we got started on Allegro. I pointed out the markings in the piece that were new to him: dolce (one of my favorites) and then, inevitably, ritard. As I pronounced the word for him and defined it, there were no giggles. With a serious, thoughtful expression, he asked candidly, "So if a person is 'retarded,' does that mean they're slowing down?"
This time I was the one supressing the giggles.