How to Ride the Euphemistic Treadmill
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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