Euphemism treadmill  

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Euphemisms often evolve over time into taboo words themselves, through a process described by W.V.O. Quine, and more recently dubbed the "euphemism treadmill" by Steven Pinker. (cf. Gresham's Law in economics). This is the well-known linguistic process known as 'pejoration' or 'semantic change'.

In his remarks on the ever-changing London slang, made in Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell mentioned both the euphemism treadmill and the dysphemism treadmill. He did not use these now-established terms, but observed and commented on the respective processes as early as in 1933.

Words originally intended as euphemisms may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotations of their referents. In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become dysphemisms.

For example, the term "concentration camp", to describe camps used to confine civilian members of the Boer community in close (concentrated) quarters, was used by the British during the Second Boer War, primarily because it sounded bland and inoffensive. Despite the high death rates in the British concentration camps, the term remained acceptable as a euphemism. However, after Nazi Germany used the expression to describe its death camps in the 1930s and 1940s, the term gained a widespread negative connotation, particularly in connection with the Holocaust.

Also, in some versions of English, the euphemisms "lavatory" or "toilet", are now considered inappropriate and are replaced with "bathroom", and "water closet", which were replaced with restroom and W.C. These are also examples of euphemisms which are geographically concentrated. The term "restroom" is rarely used outside of the United States. As for "W.C.", where before it was quite popular in the United Kingdom, it is passing out of favor there, but becoming more popular in France, Germany and Hungary now as the polite term of choice.

Similarly, scientific or medical words which are in fact euphemisms in their original languages, such as "anus" (Latin: literally "ring"), "vagina" (Latin: literally "sheath", or "pudendum", (literally "something which one must be modest about")) are now considered generally unacceptable and should be replaced by other euphemisms in polite conversation.

Words describing disability/handicap

Connotations easily change over time. "Idiot", "imbecile", and "moron" were once neutral terms for a developmentally delayed adult with the mental age comparable to a toddler, preschooler, and primary school student, respectively. As with Gresham's law, negative connotations tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the phrase mentally retarded was pressed into service to replace them. Mentally retarded, too, is considered vulgar, used commonly as an insult of a person, thing, or idea. As a result, new terms like "mentally challenged", "with an intellectual disability", "learning difficulties" and "special needs" have replaced "retarded".

A similar progression occurred with the following terms for persons with physical handicaps:

lamecrippledhandicappeddisabled → physically challenged → differently abled

(However, in the case of "crippled", the meaning of the term has also broadened and is most commonly used in the late 20th or early 21st centuries figuratively rather than literally. The term crippled is also more semantically narrow than "disabled" or "differently abled"; a dyslexic or colorblind person, for example, would not be termed "crippled".)

Another recent development is person-centric phrases, which begin with such words as "persons", followed by such constructions as "with" and "who are" and then the noun or adjective describing the condition. Examples: "persons with disabilities" (for "the disabled" and "disabled persons"), "persons who have dyslexia" (for "dyslexics"), etc. While born of a desire to emphasize the "personhood" of those described, such constructions simply use more words to focus on the same condition: for example, discussions of "persons who are blind" still are centered specifically on blind persons (or "the blind"), rather than persons in general.

Euphemisms can also serve to recirculate words that have passed out of use because of negative connotation. The word "lame" from above, having faded from the vernacular, was revitalized as a slang word generally meaning not living up to expectations or boring. The connotation of a euphemism can also be subject-specific.

In the early 1960s, Major League Baseball franchise owner and promoter Bill Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, argued against the then-favored euphemism "handicapped", saying he preferred "crippled" because it was merely descriptive and did not carry connotations of limiting one's capability the way "handicapped" (and all of its subsequent euphemisms) seemed to do (Veeck as in Wreck, chapter "I'm Not Handicapped, I'm Crippled"). Later, comedian George Carlin gave a famous monologue of how he thought euphemisms can undermine appropriate attitudes towards serious issues such as the evolving terms describing the medical problem of the cumulative mental trauma of soldiers in high stress situations:

shell shock (World War I) → battle fatigue (World War II) → operational exhaustion (Korean War) → posttraumatic stress disorder (Vietnam War)

He contended that, as the name of the condition became more complicated and seemingly arcane, sufferers of this condition have been taken less seriously as people with a serious illness, and were given poorer treatment as a result. He also contended that Vietnam veterans would have received the proper care and attention they needed were the condition still called "shell shock". In the same routine, he echoed Bill Veeck's opinion that "crippled" was a perfectly valid term (and noted that early English translations of the Bible seemed to have no qualms about saying that Jesus "healed the cripples").

Similarly, spastic was once a neutral descriptor of a sufferer of muscular hypertonicity in British English. But after Joey Deacon appeared on UK children's TV programme Blue Peter, children began to use "spastic" (and variants such as "spaz" and "spacker") as an insult and the term is now seen as very offensive. The Spastics Society changed their name to Scope in 1994; children then began to use "Scoper" as a similar insult. While the term was developing into an insult in British English, it was evolving in a radically different fashion in American English. In the U.S., "spastic" became a nonoffensive synonym for clumsiness, whether physical or mental, and nerdiness, and is very often used in a self-deprecating manner. The difference between the British and American connotations of "spastic" was starkly shown in 2006 when golf great Tiger Woods used "spaz" to describe his putting in that year's Masters. The remark went completely unnoticed in America, but caused a major uproar in the UK.

  • Abstractions and ambiguities (it for excrement, the situation for pregnancy, going to the other side for death, do it or come together in reference to a sexual act, tired and emotional for drunkenness.)
  • Indirections (behind, unmentionables, privates, live together, go to the bathroom, sleep together)
  • Mispronunciation (goldarnit, dadgummit, efing c, freakin, be-atch,shootSee minced oath)
  • Litotes or reserved understatement (not exactly thin for "fat", not completely truthful for "lied", not unlike cheating for "an instance of cheating")
  • Changing nouns to modifiers: e.g. ...makes her look slutty for " a slut", right-wing element for "Right Wing")
  • Personal names, such as John Thomas or Willy for "penis", Fanny for "vulva" (British English).
  • Slang, e.g. pot for "cannabis", laid for "having sexual intercourse" and so on.

There is some disagreement over whether certain terms are or are not euphemisms. For example, sometimes the phrase visually impaired is labeled as a politically correct euphemism for blind. However, visual impairment can be a broader term, including, for example, people who have partial sight in one eye, or even those with uncorrected poor vision, a group that would be excluded by the word blind. Similarly, the use of the term Jewish person could be chosen to avoid potential accusations of bias or anti-Semitism in using the phrase a Jew (which was deprecated by the late 20th century); however, the phrase Jewish person itself has sometimes been seen as evincing anti-Semitism.

There are three antonyms of euphemism: dysphemism, cacophemism, and power word. The first can be either offensive or merely humorously deprecating with the second one generally used more often in the sense of something deliberately offensive. The last is used mainly in arguments to make a point seem more correct.

See also


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