The euphemism treadmill.

I find fascinating the process by which an acceptable term becomes a pejorative, followed by the new acceptable term becoming a pejorative, etc. There’s a great description of this process on Wikipedia:

[A] neutral (non-pejorative) term may grow to become pejorative. This phenomenon is called pejoration. For example, the term mentally retarded was originally used as a euphemism, as had been moron before, itself a euphemism for idiot, in order to avoid true dyslogisms such as feebleminded or half-witted. But it quickly grew to have a pejorative sense of its own. Another example is the use of the word cripple being replaced by handicapped. Both of these are considered pejorative with the term “physically challenged” as the current euphemism. This same progression, from neutral to pejorative, is happening with the words challenged and special, used in the same sense, today. The term “disabled” is now seen as the correct euphemism for people with both mental and physical challenges. An even more ‘correct’ form that can be used is “person with disabilities.” On the horizon, a new euphemism, “neurologically challenged,” appears ready to take the place of these terms should they also become pejorative. Language writer Steven Pinker has called this process “the euphemism treadmill.”

05/27/2011 Update: Jacob Dix provides some illuminating information on the topic.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

10 replies on “The euphemism treadmill.”

  1. Hmm. My problem with the Wikipedia entry is calling any of these terms a euphemism. It more than implies that having a disability is something bad and/or shameful. Living with a disability is neither.

  2. @Alison: I think you’ll agree that “retarded” is a better example of a (once) euphemism than “disabled”. “Disabled” is currently a neutral term, but it might have once had a euphemistic ring to it, and may one day become a dysphemism.

  3. I have to go to Seinfield. I and some of my best friends live with disability(ies), not that there’s anything wrong with that…

    Sure, people who are prejudiced against X group will adopt a perfectly good term or word and make it into an insult, c.f. “that’s so gay.” You’re never going to stop that from happening. So if someone thinks being a member of X group is bad or shameful or the result of sin or lack of faith in Jesus Christ, it really doesn’t matter what word or term they use to describe members of X group, it will always imply “lesser” or “bad” etc.

    We now have people who actively discriminate against people with psychiatric disabilities or labels using the politically correct term “consumer” or “peer” or even “customer”. Makes absolutely no difference to their discriminatory behavior and underlying prejudice.

    Don’t call me late for dinner….

  4. Negro, colored, black, Afro-American, African American…

    My grandpa still says “colored.” I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone say “Afro-American” until Michael Richards issued his apology. I use “black” out of habit, and sometimes I feel an inexplicable twinge of shame after it escapes my lips. Can’t quite make myself trade a perfectly good one-syllable word for a seven-syllable replacement, though.

    Anything new on the horizon in this arena?

  5. a new euphemism, “neurologically challenged,” appears ready to take the place of these terms should they also become pejorative. Language writer Steven Pinker has called this process “the euphemism treadmill.”

    In regards to the MR community, self advocates prefer “intellectually disabled”.

    Forty years ago, a Down’s Syndrome baby was referred to as “a mongolian idiot”.

    We’ve come a long way……baby.

  6. My 90-yr-old Grandmother still says “colored,” and I flinch every time she says it. We try to corret her sometimes but I don’t think it really sinks in. I guess it’s an old habit that she’s unlikely to grow out of at this point. She also occasionally says “Ay-Rabs” to describe anyone from the Middle East, Arab or otherwise.

    I have never in my life met a single black person who was offended by being called “black.” Maybe I’m sheltered and naive, but I don’t think that’s the case. Sure, “African-American” sounds more proper and formal, but not because “black” sounds offensive. Also, “African-American” fails as an adjective when the person being described isn’t American or has no African ancestry.

    That’s the problem with the practice of so-called “Political Correctness” … I have no problem with speaking inclusively or avoiding offensive descriptors, but “Political Correctness” goes too far. It imagines all this hypothetical offense that is not actually occuring. It creates this “euphamism treadmill” based on a sense of guilt felt by those who are enfranchised, without any regard for the preferences of the people who those terms are actually used to describe. The phrase “Neurologically challenged” is so ridiculous that it sounds like it’s actually TRYING to be a pejorative. You know? It reminds me of middle school when kids sat around thinking up new and creative ways to say mean things to each other.

    That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be civil, or show respect to whomever one is speaking to. But that shouldn’t involve making up terms that are ridiculous to actually say. Just call people what they want to be called, you know?

    For the record, the other problem with Political Correctness is that it allows conservatives who say things that actually ARE racist / sexist / homophobic etc. to say that they’re just doing it b/c they’re sick of being told to act PC… a wee bit disingenuous, I think.

  7. I changed my opinion about the word handicapped after I learned its origins. The original connotation was that people who were disabled had to beg on the street by collecting money in their Handy Cap.

    I could see how someone who works 9-6 like the rest of us, but has a disability might find that an objectionable term.

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