How to Ride the Euphemistic Treadmill

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How do you refer to a person or people with characteristics outside the perceived norm? Why should you do so at all?

Describing a person as belonging to a certain race or ethnic group or having a physical or mental disability, or commenting on a provocative or embarrassing topic, is a challenge on more than one level. Linguist and cognitive science Steven Pinker has called the first level of challenge “the euphemistic treadmill,” a form of pejoration (a shift of meaning to a negative connotation or a less sophisticated sense) or semantic change (an alteration of meaning).

A word caught on the euphemistic treadmill is one that replaced an offensive or pejorative term but has itself become unfavorable. For example, the primary mode of reference to people in the United States of relatively recent African extraction (I employ modifiers here because all humans ultimately derive from Africa) has transformed repeatedly through recent history.

Even now, no one term is universally preferred: “African American” and black (or Black) seem to be equally popular, and many publications use the terms interchangeably, but the otherwise obsolete (and offensive) term colored persists as well in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and some black people use the otherwise inexcusable word nigger in a neutral manner but are insulted if someone of another race utters it.

In terms of condition rather than color, handicapped supplanted crippled as a description supposedly more respectful of those described, but many people, both members of that class and others, consider handicapped itself insulting because it, like crippled, emphasizes that people so described do not have the capabilities other people possess. (Similarly, writers are urged to avoid connotations of victimization: Write “Jones uses a wheelchair,” for example, rather than “Jones is bound to a wheelchair.”)

A more recent trend has been to employ a people-first perspective, in which someone is described as “a person with disabilities,” rather than “a disabled person,” though some groups and movements reject this approach as a misguided politically correct complication.

Why do these subjects have to be so complicated? We’re all genetic mongrels anyway, so why even refer to one’s race or ethnic origin? And why is it considered appropriate to comment on a person’s physical or mental condition at all?

Of course, such descriptions are not always necessary, and they should be omitted when they’re irrelevant. But, for better or worse, ethnic identity and physical or mental ability is often pertinent to a discussion.

So, we’re back to where we started — how should a writer describe an individual or a community or group when such a detail is warranted? If you’re writing for a specific publication or for an organization, investigate whether it has a pertinent style or policy. If the subject matter is dealt with in a style guide or a handbook (for example, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association), use that resource as a guide.

Otherwise, if your subject is an individual, or the content describes an individual, ask that person. If that approach is not feasible, search the individual’s own documentation (such as a personal website or a blog on which the person describes himself or herself). In the case of a community or a group, seek guidance from a representative or, again, research original documentation — for example, a print or online publication. Whatever you do, if it’s appropriate, integrate into your content as seamlessly as possible your rationale for using potentially controversial or less-than-universal terminology.

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6 thoughts on “How to Ride the Euphemistic Treadmill”

  1. Good post. While you’re on the subject, how does the time period affect word choice? If your setting is 1952, for example, can you use the terms of that period even though they may not be in favor today?

  2. George Carlin was an ardent opponent of euphemisms. He believed that euphemisms served to mask the true horrors of a condition with a term that people found soothing. This is actually a problem.

    His prime example was about a burnout that soldiers in World War I underwent. In WWI it was called “Shell-shock”, i.e. the system being strained out of its senses. Then, during WWII, it was referred to a “Battle Fatigue”. Then during Korean war as “Operational Exhaustion.” Furthered in Vietnam as “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” He emphasized on the increase of syllables and the bureaucratic sound of these words. He stressed that if people referred to the condition as it were, then some people would have received treatment for it.

    My point, same as George Carlin’s, is that euphemisms tend to inure people to the severity of the underlying problem. This grows with each new generation, as they weren’t here to see the problems and have only heard of these euphemistic references. Writers have a responsibility towards honesty, and euphemisms represent a grey area between it and outright dishonesty. As to the “Euphemistic Treadmill,” I prefer to jog on the streets outside.

  3. The term ‘race’ is always and everywhere a political construct – as Mark quite rightly points out, we’re all mongrels.

    ‘Caucasian’ is a term I particularly despise. On the most generous view, it refers to skin pigmentation (no less than ‘Black’ or ‘Negro’). A less generous interpretation associates it with christian fundamentalism and racist scum like Houston Stewart Chamberlain and the Nazis.

    It has recently spread from the US to Australia, and from law enforcement to general parlance.

    When people ask me my race, I say ‘human’!

    However, unconscious rudeness is also annoying. As a gay woman who often uses a walking stick, I find ‘gay’ and ‘lame’ offensive, when used as put-downs (“That’s so gay!” “What a lame excuse!”).

  4. “I find that offensive…well, so fucking what?”

    I very much share Stephen Fry’s view on this subject. We live in a society that is swamped in censorship where the ‘truth’ is brushed under the rug to the same degree as vulgar language or penises on television: It’s just not a beneficial compromise.

    Everyone is going to be offended by something. I myself am offended when people beat around the bush and coat their words in gratuitous amounts of sugar. Above all else, I absolutely loathe insincerity. But that’s just my hang up, and so fucking what?

    I’ll take the brut punch of honesty over a sickly sweet bite of utter fluff any day of the week, thank you very much. Tell it like it is, or better yet (or, more aptly) tell it like you see it. Wake ’em up and shake ’em up, I reckon.

    And if someone is blatantly rude or disrespectful to you personally, who cares? It’s their problem, isn’t it? And truth be told, it’s kind of narcissistic to adopt the pains of the world as your own. Live and let live, even if those you’re letting live are complete assholes – deal with it.

    And no, I’m not sorry if I’ve offended anyone.

  5. Robert:

    I think that historical and period fiction is most effective when it is faithful to the idiom and terminology of the period. Much of our vocabulary is appropriate to other eras, but writers must be careful not to distract readers of historical or period fiction with neologisms or words coined more recently than the era they are writing about.

  6. do you remember the old phrase: ” sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”

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