Euphemisms are like underwear: best changed frequently. What work are they doing in our language and why do they expire?
John McWhorter is a professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University. His latest book is The Language Hoax (2014).
Edited by Sam Dresser
Why do euphemisms change so often?
What we would today call "cash assistance" for the differently abled could in a different era permissibly have been called "welfare for cripples". The terms "welfare" and "crippled" sound somewhere between loaded and abusive today, and yet once were considered civil by educated, sensitive people. There actually was an organisation called the "International Society for the Welfare of Cripples" established in 1922.
However, in 1960 it was retitled the "International Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled".
The reason for this rolling semantic renewal is that the meanings of words are, in actual usage, messier than their dictionary definitions, cast in the tidy eternity of print, might make them seem. We store words in our brains amid webs of association, with experiences, impressions and other words. As a result, a word is always redolent of various associations, metaphorical extensions, beyond its core meaning.
For example, "generous" once meant "noble", with no connection to sharing. It’s what William Shakespeare meant when he used the term.
Over time, especially as formal nobility itself had ever less importance (think of the fate of the Crawleys in Downton Abbey), the meaning of magnanimity changed from a resonance of generous to the meaning it has today.
A word, then, is like a bell tone, with a central pitch seasoned by overtones. As the tone fades away, the overtones can hang in the air. Words are similar, with opinion, assumption and, more to the point, bias as equivalents to the overtones. Crippled began as a sympathetic term. However, a sad reality of human society is that there are negative associations and even dismissal harboured against those with disabilities. Thus crippled became accreted with those overtones, so to speak, to the point that handicapped was fashioned as a replacement term free from such baggage.
However, because humans stayed human, it was impossible that "handicapped" would not, over time, become accreted with similar gunk. Enter "disabled", which is now long-lived enough that many process it, too, as harbouring shades of abuse, which conditions a replacement such as "differently abled". Notably, the "International Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled" later changed its name again to "Rehabilitation, International"; today, the organisation prefers to be known simply as "RI", bypassing the inconvenience of actual words altogether. The story has been similar for "retarded" being replaced by cognitively "impaired"; for "welfare", which today is more often referred to as "cash assistance"; or by the faceless initials of programmes disbursing it, such as "TANF" ("Temporary Assistance for Needy Families").
As a lad decades ago, I worked briefly in the production of a magazine about "family planning". Unfamiliar with the terminology, I spent months in this job before fully understanding that "family planning" referred to "contraception", not just people musing over when they ‘planned’ to have children. Why the obliqueness? Because "family planning" was a replacement euphemism for "birth control", coined in 1914 by the US contraception activist Margaret Sanger. Note that "birth control" was in itself as elliptical and abstract a terminology as "family planning". Yet today, "birth control" summons the concrete image of a contraceptive pill or other device. It was inevitable that this would become the case for "birth control" given the controversy over its use.
The euphemism "treadmill", then, is neither just a form of "bureaucratese", nor of "identity politics". It is a symptom of the fact that, however much we would like it to be otherwise, it’s easier to change language than to change thought. Moreover, the euphemism "treadmill" is neither new nor does it churn faster than it once did. When you ask someone "Where’s the men’s?", you are using a replacement for the "restroom" that can summon a vision of a certain undersanitised room in the back of a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant. Yet the very idea of it being a ‘rest’ room began as an exquisite attempt to wave away miasmic associations after "bathroom" ceased to do the job any better than had "toilet" or "lavatory", deflecting attention to grooming and cleansing over what else happens in the room. Historically, "lavatory" is first attested in 1864, "restroom" followed hot on its heels a few decades later, at the turn of the 20th century, and then "men’s room" came into fashion in the 1920s.
This means that, in a linguistically mature society, we should expect that the terms we introduce to help us kick off new ways of thinking will require periodic replacement, like tyres. In our moment, special-needs student would appear about due for a swap-out. Meanwhile, the term innovation has been fashionable for just long enough among corporate and political types that it has taken on their hucksterish associations. Invention, for their purposes, would be better, although by about 2035 we can assume that this word too will sound, from the mouths of that era’s managers and mayors, equally fulsome.
Reality persists. It’s language we have control over - at least, for a while.