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There's a Name for How Our Language Evolves When It Acquires Negative Connotations

And it's called the euphemism treadmill.
(Photo: Sergey Khakimullin)

(Photo: Sergey Khakimullin)

In 1876, a group of doctors started an advocacy organization with an unwieldy, shocking-in-hindsight name: the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feebleminded Persons. "Idiotic and feebleminded," then considered compassionate terms for people we now describe as having intellectual disabilities, would soon become schoolyard taunts, and by 1933 the organization struck them from its name. Two name changes later, in 2007, the group became the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Such linguistic etiquette shifts are common: Funeral directors were once called undertakers; today's lavatory or restroom was yesterday's bathroom, or—in the 18th century—water closet.

In his 2002 book The Blank Slate, the neuroscientist Steven Pinker dubbed this phenomenon the "euphemism treadmill." The language we use to describe politically fraught or unsavory subjects inevitably acquires negative associations, leading polite society to adopt new language. "Redskin," preferred by Native Americans and European Americans alike in the 1800s, was used as a pejorative in the 20th century—hence the rise of Native American. Language is a slam-dance between bullies and their targets, the uncouth and the civil.

Pinker and his colleagues might argue this is a needless exercise—that concepts lead, not the words we use to describe those concepts. Language doesn't shape cognition, and so the use of a word like "redskin" can’t spread the bigoted attitudes associated with it today further than they already were held; better to stamp out the underlying ideology than get hung up on hurtful language used to express it. On the other hand, word choice can create the impression of endorsement, even if we adopt a phrase unconsciously from ignorant neighbors. The euphemism treadmill may not help us outrun bigotry, but maybe it stops us running toward it.


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