NICK[to HONEY]: Are you all right?
HONEY: Of course, dear, I want to . . . powder my nose.
GEORGE [as MARTHA is not getting up]: Martha, won’t you show her where we keep the . .. . euphemism?
- Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) did not believe in coincidence. He coined the term “synchronicity” to describe coincidental events and attributed them to a giant collective subconscious.
I mention this because whilst driving home from work tonight with my son Thomas, he mentioned that he had a great topic for Bytes. He began telling me that he had had discussions in the office about the correctness of the use of the term “retarded”. I interrupted him to say that I had read that someone had coined the term “euphemism treadmill” to refer to the use of euphemisms which over time also get changed after becoming politically incorrect. I had come across another reference to it whilst looking up something for Spoon Week. I told him that that is what I would post for Saturday. He commented that the euphemism treadmill is what he was going to suggest as a topic.
Which brings us to that topic. The process whereby euphemisms lose their euphemistic value and themselves develop negative associations was already known before Steven Pinker (pictured above) coined the term “euphemism treadmill” in 2003 in his book The Blank Slate. George Orwell wrote of the euphemism treadmill and its opposite, the dysphemism treadmill, without using those terms, in his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London.
There are numerous reasons why euphemisms are used, including as an alternative to swearing, avoidance of words denoting unpleasant subject matter, the change in connotation over time and changed community attitudes. When I first began practising in Family Law the age old term “bastard” to refer to a child born outside marriage had given way to “illegitimate”, as distinct from a child born within marriage whose status was “legitimate”. That in turn was changed to “ex-nuptial”, ie outside marriage, but these days the marital status of the parents of a child is irrelevant as regards the status of the child.
One of the most common areas for the euphemism treadmill to function is in respect of disability. Once upon a time the effective ages of developmentally delayed persons were described by the words:
Idiot: mental age comparable to a toddler;
Moron: primary school child.
Those words developed such a negative connotation, especially in being used as forms of abuse, that the terms were changed to “mentally retarded”. The term “retard” also became a form of abuse and has given way to descriptions and terminology such as “mentally challenged”, “intellectual disability” and “special needs”.
Thomas pointed out to me that even those terms are now used as a means of insult, such as “Are you challenged or something?”
Some other euphemism treadmill examples:
Lame --> crippled --> spastic --> handicapped --> disabled --> physically challenged --> person with a disability
Shell shock (WW1) --> battle fatigue (WW2) --> operational exhaustion (Korean War) --> post traumatic stress disorder (Vietnam)
Bill Veeck, a Major League Baseball franchise owner, preferred to be described as “crippled” in respect of the loss of a leg. His argument, in the 1960’s, was that alternative terms such as “disabled” and “handicapped” carried a sense of not being able, of being limited in capabilities, whereas “crippled” was descriptive only.
Comedian George Carlin has commented that the softening of terms to describe what was originally called “shell shock” has had the effect of reducing the perception of the seriousness of the condition.
In 2006 Tiger Woods commented post match during a round in the US Masters “I was so in control from tee to green, the best I've played for years... But as soon as I got on the green I was a spaz.” This caused a controversy in England and Australia, where the term “spaz”, short for “spastic”, being sufferers of cerebral palsy, is an offensive term of abuse and considered insulting to
handicapped, disabled, challenged, people with disabilities. Apparently that is not the case in the US, where the comment went largely uncommented upon, the term there being regarded as a description of a clumsy person.
The negativity associated with the word “spastic” caused the Spastics Society in England (and in Victoria, Australia) to change its name to Scope in 1994.
The controversy surrounding the word "Spaz" has not stopped one company putting out a range of wheelchairs under the name Spazz:
or an Asian energy drink called Spaz Juice:
or someone else marketing a caffeinated lip balm under the name Spaz Stick: