The Euphemism Treadmill


This expression was coined by cognitive psychologist and linguist Stephen Pinker in 1997

I thought this was very interesting because over the years I have seen word after word become offensive. Any word used to describe something towards which people are prejudiced inevitably becomes negatively loaded. If you replace that word without doing anything about the root cause of the prejudice, the cycle will continue.

If you think of the progression of

  • toilet –> WC –> bathroom –> restroom
  • crippled/retarded/idiot –> handicapped –> disabled –> differently abled (now being phased out in favour of terms emphasising accessibility)
  • handicap toilet –> accessible toilet
  • welfare benefit/social benefit –> financial assistance/income support
  • prisoner –> inmate/client
  • prison –> correctional care facility
  • criminal –> offender
  • [offensive word] –> person of colour/Native American/First Nation/BIPOC
  • garbage collection –> sanitation services
  • special needs –> different needs
  • wheelchair bound –> wheelchair user
  • shellshock –> battle fatigue –> operational exhaustion –> post traumatic stress disorder
  • deaf –> hearing impaired –> hard of hearing

Sometimes these words change so quickly that we cannot keep up with the correct one. When it comes to certain of the words above, the preferred term can change from individual to individual. Naturally, the ultimate aim is to remove the prejudice behind the term, but until then we should listen to the people affected by these terms, many of whom have less power and presence in our society.

Then again, how far can we go with the euphemism treadmill and political correctness? Is it possible to say anything at all at the moment that is not offensive to someone?

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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