The Euphemism Treadmill

Update: 2017-04-18


John McWhorter on the evolution from 'crippled' to 'handicapped' to 'differently abled' and why no such term is likely to stick around long.

Join Slate Plus! Members get bonus segments, exclusive member-only podcasts, and more. Sign up for a free trial today at

Twitter: @lexiconvalley

Learn more about your ad choices. Visit

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

their podcast listeners and Julia Turner the editor in chief of slate if you are curious about the sleepless podcast experience maybe you've heard about these bonus answer this ad free podcast the haven't quite gotten around to giving a shot there has never been a better time to try a membership program for limited time only we're offering a free ninety day trial when you download sites new iOS app will enjoy all the benefits of C plus including ad free podcasts the segments are complete library of sleet academies to download the app and start your free ninety day trial visit say dot com slash Happy Valley is brought to my head space download the head space app to train your mind for a happier healthier life learn more head space dot com slash lexicon the York City this is lexicon Valley podcast about language and on the quarter at Columbia University I teach linguistics among other things my latest books are talking back talking black and words on the move why English can't and won't sit still like literally today what I want to talk about something that I think concerns us all and I think there of looking at that don't necessarily occur to us what I mean can be exemplified by the simple fact that in nineteen twenty two There was established society called the International Society for the welfare of cripples that's what it was cold and that was considered progressive and completely okay now in nineteen sixty as you might imagine the name of this place was changed to the International Society for the rehabilitation of the disabled not the welfare of cripples but that exemplifies a phenomenon that we're all familiar with and that in some ways frustrate us which is that term it's considered perfectly okay today for some reason after fifteen or twenty years often it can seem for some reason ends up being processed as a slur and I don't think any of us are wishing that there was something called the Society for the welfare of cripples now but when we experience this in here we can often feel like there's something that can be called and has been called by Steven Pinker who needs no introduction the euphemism treadmill the idea being that to be at least relatively enlightened person is to get used to having to renew various terms especially for things that are rather sensitive or prickly to the extent that you can start wondering where you stand we have to keep having new terms for what can seem after all to be the same thing so the euphemism treadmill is it something we should roll out by that or is it inevitable and you can predict where I'm going to go with this it's inevitable but more to the point it can be considered good thing and I won't give you a sense of what I mean but first we have to pull the camera back someone and think about the fact that it's inherent to worms to change meanings are always in the process of transformation the dictionary is just a snapshot of what a word is and no I'm not going to play something from an old radio sitcom this time I mean just ordinary words and so for example the word nice that seems like the holiest of words nice and it is going to say something as nice of a little non committal but that's a different subject but nice we all know what it means but we know what it used to mean nice starter now in Latin as meaning ignorant nice meant not knowing today we think of nice as to nicely folded hands or some sort of cake that is in chocolate or the like but it started out meaning ignorant now words always have overtones like when the bell rings there's that Dong that then if you listen there's the hanging out those overtones often end up affecting what the actual meaning of the word comes to be over time so if you are ignorant then you might be clumsy it might be associated with a certain lack of Grayson after a while this word nice means clumsy that's how it came in as a French word nice man clumsy bill that's what it meant well if you're clumsy you're probably not proud of it and it can imply a certain timidity was Joe from the timid ok so after a while nice means timid well if you're timid then it might imply that you're kind of fussy that fastidious that you keep your scrambled eggs separate from the grits or whatever you have on your plate your fastidious and if you are fastidious which is what nice came to mean after a while then it probably you're a fan of that delicate like lace you like the precision precise and so nice can mean precise and think about it that's what nice means an expression like well you're making a nice distinction when you say that you don't mean a distinction that brings you a cherry pie when somebody has died it's not kind of distinction it's a fine distinction ok but if something is precise things are in their place the way they're supposed to be that the form of angry ability and next thing you know nice means agreeable that's how words change they do it all the time the overtones come to be the work now what does that have to do with the euphemism treadmill this overtones can include negative associations that we have with the term and so if there is a term for something that's controversial that critical mass of people have unsavory feelings about well you can change the word in order to push back against the un savory fillings but the thing is the overtones are still there overtones of those negative associations remain gnats when you try to wave them away or flies when you try to wait and wait they're gonna settle back down and the next thing you know somebody tries to invent a new term and has that same effect for about the same amount of time it's just a natural process that's what creates the euphemism treadmill and so predictable it becomes that crippled used to be a perfectly respectable word that gets replaced by handicapped because people start feeling that their negative associations with the quote unquote crippled that we would like to fight against and most of us probably remember handicapped was perfectly okay but then we learned that you're supposed to say disabled and you think why we have to change it and that's because the same sort of associations that had created on to cripple the created on handicap and so disabled well nowadays there are calls from some circles for disabled to be replaced for the exact same reason by differently able to from what I hear differently able is highly problematic to some people and their other terms that are being worked out this is a typical process because of overtones not the ringing of the bell but that's trained other tongues hanging in the air that always have a way of affecting how we really think about a word despite whatever the vanilla dictionary definition would be not too long ago L I was participating in a forum on social policy in the person to my left was talking about something called ten F I have to admit that I had to work for about five minutes to figure out what this is personally my tennis then I remembered oh wait a minute it's T A N F It's temporary Assistance to needy families that is modern term perfectly respectable term for what used to be called welfare or before that Home Relief which is a lovely way of putting what this kind of assistance is but after awhile home relief was spat out by many people almost as a slur that was replaced by welfare I think most of us understand what welfare came to mean in the minds of many despite whatever you see in Webster's and so then came cash assistance and to date and compete with that especially in policy circles there will certainly need to be something new within the next ten minutes and that's because the negative associations of welfare or whatever we're going to call it persist whatever the terminology happens to be it happens in choir little corners of our lives and so for example here's something that we think of is just a word but as a janitor think about it in real life are you really happy calling somebody a janitor you notice that in many circles to say janitor feel the little funny we feel like there's a bit of a slur and that it's not quite the right word isn't really custodian the right word yeah usually it is and that's something that goes back to the forties when certain creation was felt around the word janitor you can get a sense of this and as a matter of fact nineteen fifty two on the old Abbott and Costello TV show hostility so by the way is highly recommended for those of you who think they were just some knock about comedians from another time beating each other up that's more than what went on with them particularly on the TV show which is absolutely surreal there two seasons of it I wouldn't bother with the second but the first season will leave you howling if you like things like laugh In or even arrested Development it makes no sense whatsoever it's a joy forever there is one episode where abang Costello are having a conflict as they usually are with the guy who runs their boarding house calls them boys despite that there the staff before he is looking man and they're always behind on their room rent which is the old word for it it's Costello who decides to call what we would today call the superintendent listen to what he calls this man this man was relatively hairless and so that's the root of one of the things that he says but this is what cost us the the the the the the uh the the the the the uh the more of my naivete when I was a land I worked for Allen who mock or institute was one of the nicest jobs I ever had they advocate policy on something called family planning I was only twenty one years old and I was working on their house organ their magazine I was familiar with all the text but there was a lot about the world that I didn't know and that included what the proper euphemisms where for certain things and you know I spent three months there before I understood that the family planning that this magazine was about was about condoms and I of France I actually thought the weekly planning many people sitting at the kitchen table and the siding just when they were going to have children then that couldn't be with this particular articles about this is about condoms that's because that is another area where these euphemisms have a way of coming in it starts with birth control in nineteen forty think about how YOU for Mystic that is but then there's contraception that's Latin for against birth but immediately that came to know to most people's minds something vaguely physically on Queen perhaps and that likely somebody around you wishes you were using and next thing you know you've got handling the the Good evening welcome to future choices my name is Fran Snedeker and I am the producer and moderator of this educational series much remains to be done to bring family planning into the twenty first century in this country when I was twenty one had no idea what that conversation was about the the the book A Time for a short break lexicon Valley is brought you this week by head space spring is here in full swing it's a great time of year to improve your health not just physically but mentally to really change your habits so many problems begin in our but end up taking a toll on our bodies I know firsthand that anxiety can be totally debilitating worrying or your kids or just life in general had space and provides guided meditations that you can use whenever you want wherever you want any device there is a ton of science of and really what's the downside it's less than one percent of your day can totally change the other If you've never tried meditation before think of it this way you something minutes every day dramatically reduces your stress level down though the head space and train happier healthier learn more head space that's it's based on com slash Mexico now back to the show and let's get down to me he grows follow Negro College Fund o Negro supposed to be an insult well it has been for very long time not when that organization was founded and Negro was replaced to an extent by collar that was a perfectly respectable turn the National Association for the advancement of colored People we think now isn't that cool odd isn't it supposed to be National Association for the advancement of African American people which would make it the Nanaimo but no it's not going to be that because an double ACP as a term is preserved in Amber after a while Black became the term art and then starting in late nineteen eighties African American here's another example where negative secretions around the term play a large role in determining that people decide that there needs to be a new appellation and so from Negro to colored to black to African American and notice that it's been a long time since nineteen eighty nine which is one African American crept into the consciousness of America to a high degree and as a result the negative associations or at least dismissive ones that are often associated with black people are beginning to settle down upon the term African American just like rust an example is the way yeah our President has sometimes referred to African Americans just in the use of the law oh she's done is talk to the African Americans and to the Latinas but they get the vote and then they come back they say will see in four years the African Americans now I'm not saying that to say the African Americans is to say an I D E R but it's a distancing tool that makes black people sound rather remote it makes black people sound like any eternal problem case and however you feel about that indication it shows that the sorts of associations the renewal of terms were designed to counteract are coming back to the term African American there some who would say a new term is needed I've heard from some of the kids that black is back which I like because I never stopped using black but we're going to have to have more euphemism more innovation because that's how the interaction between terms and meanings works now important to know it's not always a matter of this sort of cleanup of unsavory associations sometimes this sort of change of terminology would be considered by many to be an indication of the progress of your fighting what could be seen as Orwellian language the the so for example efficiency that's a term that in its dictionary meaning means whatever we on the deficiencies but in the corporate sense it used to be used to mean people getting things done in a particular way that involved working particular hours under certain what many later came to see is d human diving conditions or downsizing we all think we know now what that means including the smell that own the term originally it was invented as a faceless reference to a certain efficient policy of handling personnel well the real world feelings about say people losing their jobs are being cast into unemployment settle down that we're downsizing and smoked it now so there's an example where something that's genuinely a euphemism ends up being caught and detained in its way what all of this means is that if we understand this relationship between worlds and the real world we understand the euphemism treadmill really is inevitable change in terminology can nudge thought can get conversations going it can make people think about what our opinions and sentiments are surrounding tissue language change like that can nudge thought but only so much communal thought is stronger than labels and so for example my former colleague at UC Berkeley George Lake off had an interesting suggestion I got around especially in two thousand and four his idea was the Democratic Party could advance its agenda more effectively with some term a logical changes to things that had created certain negative association so his idea was that we stop saying taxes and instead we say membership fees his idea was that we don't say trial lawyer we say public protection attorney neat idea and I think the only reason it stopped getting around much was because the Obama Revolution ended up basically distracting us from anything that anybody been talking about before temporarily at least but it was interesting idea except I would add that we would have had to expect that any change in thought that that kind of calm logical adjustment may have had to be temporary because after about twenty fees would be uttered with the same hse nearby the same people as taxes was so would have to be a continual process so a way to approach this is not to assume that we need term and let it sit there but to assume that we'll need new words regularly for something until the thoughts change we have to expect that whenever will get Hari after about twenty or twenty five years and we ought to have it already in the plans that were going to have new terms and just assume that we're going to have to keep doing that to keep the conversation going until the thoughts that we wish to change actually do change but we have to assume because this is the way it almost always is that the changes and thaw will be gradual and even frustrating process in fact some people would try to just be they the terms altogether the International Society for the rehabilitation of the disabled that today is called rehabilitation in turn us all and the term of preference is just our size so they're just flying over the whole thing that's not always possible however and I think we should accept the euphemism treadmill as any eternal consequence of the relationship between language and thought in the real world boy did I enjoy the flood of correspondence that I got last week about Lucille bowls usage of the word hey that episode was supposed to pee about Hamilton but ninety five percent of the male was about I've got a new broom K and I have heard from all over the world from English speakers and speakers of Dutch for the record about that kind of hey usage and it's been absolutely fascinating I failed in communication in a particular way when I talked about this I meant the usage of hay not with questions but with statements and so I have learned a great deal about the usage of that hay with questions and the most obvious case was Canada and so of course that he is very similar to the way A is used in Canada and I've heard alot about it in Australia and South Africa as well those Hasan A's are wonderful but those are questions we've come a long sir but the Lucy kind to use the official linguistic term for this Hey the Lucy kind is my dog doesn't bite hay or pickles can be sour sweet day after statement and you know folks I try to respond to every email that I get but I got so many based on hay that I just couldn't respond everybody please know everything everybody said and thought about it but there are two people who gave what seemed to mean to be promising leads Joseph O'Connell seems to be recording the Lucy hay in Northampton Massachusetts and a lot of interesting stuff from Michigan and Wisconsin the clearest example seem to be from Kristin solace in Michigan and so I'm still happy to hear examples and one last thing I want everybody to know that the reason I play these antique eclipse is not just because I like digging through my attic and so knew Hey look what I collect especially since the day I didn't collect it all online now openly admit that the one about how America sounded in the nineteen thirties that was anti me I frankly that start with me to share with America that little Bosco had said fuck and I built it out from there but only that episode usually playing these antique ey things because part of what I'd like to get across to everybody about language is that it's always changing because the change can feel so annoying including to me in our own times and so our listeners is to show that that's how language goes not to so we can listen to how George Gershwin talked or we want to learn from podcasts like this that LOL in texting is not just something unique about the kids but that these little words such as Hey our power of speaking as a human being and they go back as far as perhaps Lucy and certainly further back than that almost certainly back to Africa one hundred and fifty thousand years ago that's just how people talk or to leave you with something that Trump talk the way it's been so richly covered that Trump does not use formal structures in the way that he addresses the country some people set up in one of them that what he's doing is he's just talking instead of speaking and that pretty much all of us just talk in our casual lies we just don't think of it that way it's hard to hear people speaking casually before about ten minutes ago especially if you're talking about people speaking casually in the early twentieth century or before it just wasn't recorded very often even in popular media however there was something called not candid Camera which many of you will remember that grew out of something called candid microphone and the candid microphone radio show is all but invisible except that you do get to hear ordinary people running their mouths instead of reading from script and you know it surprising if you devote any of your life to listening through these other huts ferry Monday in episodes of what's considered funny in nineteen forty seven which today usually isn't you do get to hear the street who frankly is now dead and can't speak for himself or herself so this just an example of the cab driver ordinary white working class cab driver on Park Avenue in Manhattan one morning in nineteen forty seven listen to the way he talks and will hear somebody using a phrase Allah je that is not dissimilar from the way our current president often expresses himself the the the the the like and I The Well what can I do about the idea but I don't know drive is able to make change the the the family what can I do the the the change on or go for I a gold nugget when the pain am sorry to change I don't want to go for a joyride the usual come again to go to a document with the result we were the ones you thought about that you can reach us at lexicon Valley at slate dot com That's lexicon Valley of slate dot com Follow us on Twitter at lexicon Valley Steel a tie is the executive producer of slate podcast and Andy Bowers is the chief content officer of the pan open network the show was edited by my full o' hunt on the quarter thanks so much to listen and see you back here in two weeks the the
In Channel

Sometimes Just Because


Against Strunk & White


Whence Baby Mama?


Este No Es Parqueo


From Pidgins to Creoles


In the Negative


Mining Graffiti for Slang


That's Not a Word, Is It?


The Euphemism Treadmill


Black Like Us


Whither Didst Thou Go?


Word Sex


Are Emoji a Language?


Rules Are Made to Be Spoken


Your Brain on Profanity


Defecation Presentation


They Had a Good Year




Seven Centuries of F--ks


LinguaFile XIII | Bozo


The Pollyanna Hypothesis


LinguaFile XII | Kibitz


LinguaFile XI | Seersucker


LinguaFile X | Pumpernickel


And Infinitum


LinguaFile IX | Carnival


Sex Workers


LinguaFile VIII | Quiz


LinguaFile VII | Cockamamie


Exposure to Vape Culture


LinguaFile VI | Grog


Number Theory


LinguaFile IV | Snark


Man on the Street


LinguaFile III | Orange


Demonstratively Speaking


LinguaFile II | Lagniappe


Special Announcement


Special Announcement


Download from Google Play
Download from App Store






The Euphemism Treadmill

Slate Magazine/Panoply