Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The euphemism treadmill

This passage from a James Taranto piece on the Obama administration's silly decision to stop using the term "enemy combatants" to describe enemy combatants.

The president is shrewdly employing what evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker calls the "euphemism treadmill," described in a 2001 MIT press release about a Pinker speech:

Why have the San Diego and Boston city councils recently banned the word "minority" as derogatory, when its literal meaning is neutral? He suggested this exemplified a "euphemism treadmill," in which a word for an emotionally charged concept is replaced, in hopes of redefining people's attitudes toward the concept. But instead, the new word becomes tainted, prompting the search for yet another fresh word, and so on.

Pinker said linguists had already noted the process with concepts as diverse as toilets ("lavatories, bathrooms, restrooms"), disabilities ("crippled, handicapped, disabled, challenged"), and old folks ("elderly, golden agers, senior citizens"). Thus, "Negro" became "black," which led to "African American"; "Oriental" became "Asian"; "Hispanic" became "Latino." This shows that changing a word is not enough to change attitudes, and indicates how far we have to go in achieving racial progress, he said. "We know we will have achieved equality and mutual respect when terms for ethnic minorities stay put."

Of course we've all taken notice of this phenomenon, and probably even made fun of it. But I never knew the official name for it (other then the, yes, euphemism "political correctness").

I'm not sure what they plan to call them now. The Europress prefers "youths," and I have to admit that the thought of Obama using that is delicious.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home