Euphemizing bad things – why the target keeps moving

Periodically some issue or another flares up in a way that calls to mind how the words we use to describe certain people, groups, and conditions come into and fade out of fashion. For instance, I have been upbraided on occasion by people who don’t like some of the words I use in talking about the disabled. In these cases people tend to get a little presumptuous about my credentials on the topic of disability rights. As I point out in these cases, I was raised by a grandmother who spent most of her life on crutches or in a wheelchair because of a multiple childhood illnesses, one being polio, and then had to sit by as she wasted away – in a state very like that of the late Terri Schiavo – artificially sustained by the ravages of medical technology. These experiences lead me to assert that I know at least a little on the subject, and certainly enough that I won’t be enduring any self-righteous PC lectures from folks who haven’t walked a mile in my shoes.

The terminology issue here, of course, is what’s the best term to use when describing those who suffer from disabilities (and already I’m in hot water because I used that word “suffer”). These days we have a variety of terms, including things like “differently abled,” that seek to remove the stigma from the condition, and if anybody supports the mission of emphasizing the capabilities and the innate humanness of people with disabilities, it’s me. I look back and try to imagine how much easier life could have been for my grandmother had society done a better job of this while she was alive.

But the acceptable terms keep changing, and what was once considered sensitive and appropriate eventually becomes something like a profanity. Try out the word my grandmother used to describe herself next time you encounter someone in a wheelchair – “crippled.”

We’ve seen the same thing with racial descriptors. The proper term these days is “African-American” (a term that bugs the hell out of some Africans, I’ve learned – one South African guy I used to play soccer with got sputtering mad over it – “these people aren’t African – they’ve never been to Africa” – so there’s perhaps no hope of pleasing everybody). You can still get away with “black” in some cases, but I’d counsel against trotting out the word that used to be preferred, “Negro,” unless you’re specifically talking about the UNCF.

So why do words keep evolving from good to bad? Why do words that connote sensitivity and social enlightenment come, a few years down the road, to indicate insensitivity, indifference, ignorance, or worse? And why do I care about the linguistic gymnastics we keep performing in our never-ending march toward fuller social actualization?

Well, I think the answer is actually pretty simple. A word used to describe a thing invariably takes on the quality of the thing. No matter what word you used to describe “love” or “family” or “financial security” or “justice,” that word is going to have a long run at the top of the charts because the things being described are good. No vocabulary musical chairs games are required.

The fact that you have to keep coming up with shiny new words is evidence that the thing searching for a name is still a bad thing in some respect (not that it’s innately bad, necessarily, but that the context of the culture has yet to render it acceptable or valorous or noble or whatever – being black or African-American isn’t bad in and of itself, although being so in a society in which you don’t have full equality of opportunity because of the fact of your race, well, that is bad; this said, I’m willing to argue that most physical and mental disabilities, even if manageable, are inherently things not to be desired, although a sufficiently advanced society will avoid adding to the difficulties these citizens already face). Further, the pace with which new terms have to be generated is perhaps a measure of how bad the problem still is.

The lesson: we’ll know we’ve arrived at a just and egalitarian society where questions of race and disability are concerned, for instance, when we look up and realize that the terms used to describe these people haven’t changed in a long time….

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3 comments

  1. Uh Huh…
    “we’ll know we’ve arrived at a just and egalitarian society…”
    Since I tend to think , like Levy-Strauss, that words have an inherent magic in them and convey the mass unconscious of all human experience asserting itself into language, I believe we’d have to shift the energy being expended on, oh, say, advancing technology to understanding our being and raison d’etre before we could begin to approach such a society.
    In other words, we’re a ways off and not traveling in that direction….

  2. Good entry at Wikipedia:

    The “euphemism treadmill”
    Euphemisms can eventually become taboo words themselves through a process the linguist Steven Pinker has called the euphemism treadmill (cf. Gresham’s Law in economics).
    Words originally intended as euphemisms, or “politically correct” phrases, may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotations of their referents. In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become dysphemistic.
    For example, toilet room, itself a euphemism, was replaced with bathroom and water closet, which were replaced (respectively) with rest room and W.C.; similarly, funeral director replaced mortician, which replaced undertaker. In American English, the original sense “comfortable, cosy” of homely has been superseded by the once-euphemistic sense “plain-looking”, which is now simply insulting.
    Connotations easily change over time. Idiot was once a neutral term, and moron a similar one. Negative senses of a word tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the word retarded was pressed into service to replace them. Now that too is considered rude, and a result, new terms like mentally challenged or special are starting to replace retarded. In a few decades, calling someone special may well be a grave insult. A similar progression occurred with
    crippled → handicapped → disabled → differently-abled
    The euphemism treadmill also occurs with notions of profanity and obscenity. Words once called “offensive” were later described as “objectionable”, and later “questionable”. However, “questionable” was judged by some to itself contain a value judgment — it was replaced with “possibly questionable”, though the word “possible” is technically a redundancy.
    A complementary dysphemism treadmill exists, but is more rarely observed. One modern example is the word “sucks”. “That sucks” began as American slang for “that is very unpleasant”, and is shorthand for “that sucks dick”. It developed over the late-20th century from being an extremely vulgar phrase to near-acceptability. A child would rarely be disciplined for using the phrase “that sucks”, which has been divorced from its original meaning.

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