残奥会在英文中的说法是Paralympics 或the Paralympic Games，对于Paralympic的来历，目前的解释说法不一。一种解释称，Paralympic 原是为“脊髓病患者”举行的运动会，而paralympic由希腊语词缀para-（在……一旁，在……旁边）和-(O)lympic（奥林匹克）合成而来，它延续了奥林匹克团结友爱、公平竞争的精神，同时又充分表达了奥运会和残奥会平等共存的关系。还有一种理解认为，Paralympics代表了与Olympics平行、同在（Parallel）。不过，著名的网络百科全书维基百科的解释是：The name derives from the Greek "para" ("beside" or "alongside") and thus refers to a competition held in parallel with the Olympic Games. No relation with paralysis（瘫痪）or paraplegia（截瘫）is intended。不过，就残奥会来历来说，它还是与瘫痪患者密切相关的。资料记载如下：Sir Ludwig Guttmann organized a sports competition in 1948 which became known as the Stoke Mandeville Games, involving World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries; in 1952 competitors from the Netherlands took part in the competition, giving an international notion to the movement. The first Olympic-style games for athletes with a disability were held in Rome in 1960; officially called the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games, these are considered to be the first Paralympic Games. The first Winter Paralympics were held in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden in 1976.
残奥会顾名思义就是专门面向残疾人的奥运会，因此，其英文表达又可以为the Olympic Games for the disabled/handicapped，其通俗易懂性超过了the Paralympic Games，后者显得更为专业或专门。维基百科对残奥会有一个十分地道的解释：The Paralympic Games are a multi-sport event for athletes with physical, mental and sensorial disabilities. This includes mobility disabilities, amputees, visual disabilities and those with cerebral palsy. The Paralympic Games are held every four years, following the Olympic Games, and are governed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). 由此可见，残奥会针对的主要是肢体和感官残疾者，智力残疾者也并非不可以参加。
不过，智力残疾者也有一个专门的奥运会，这就是世界特殊奥林匹克运动员，其英文表达为Special Olympics，官方网站是www.specialolympics.org。 有人往往把残奥会和特殊奥运会(简称特奥会)混为一谈。其实,特奥会是专为智障人士设立的。 对此，维基百科也解释说，The Paralympic Games are sometimes confused with the Special Olympics World Games, which are only for people with intellectual disabilities.由此可见，特奥会是专门针对智力残疾者（智障人士）的奥运会，虽然根据残奥会的英文解释，他们也可以参加残奥会，但现在随着两大赛事的日益完善，肢体残疾和智力残疾者（智障人士）分别参加残奥会和特奥会已经成为得到广泛公认的事实。国际特奥会对其性质的官方定义是：Special Olympics is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, productive and respected members of society through sports training and competition.