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| 1 minute read

The euphemism treadmill

The language we use to refer to complex and difficult matters which have an element of pain for those concerned is currently under microscopic examination and the past is being filtered for things that are now called "problematic". At times like this it is always useful to refer back to the actual mechanisms which give us our words and their meaning and how we view them. Words are of course a social construct, and their meaning is a combination of both intended meaning and understood meaning. Anyone who has read Wittgenstein can tell you that language cannot develop with merely one person (his famous private language argument against solipsism) and consequently meaning cannot be ascribed to a word merely by the intention of the speaker, but equally not merely by the understanding of the recipient.

This article tracks the use of once commonly used word for mental disability (beware, its uses the word, so don't open it if you are likely to be offended by a 1980s playground insult aimed at those with learning difficulties) from its first usage as a euphemism or acceptable word designed to deflect from a difficult reality, through its use as a playground insult, and to itself becoming a taboo, unspeakable word. According to Steven Pinker this is an inevitability. That is the process. It cannot be escaped.

This means that in fifty years time the words "complex needs", which is now the BBC style guide approved term, will themselves be taboo, and people will look back and find the fact they were ever used in polite society as amazing and proof of our age's innate ableism and there is nothing a well meaning journalist can do about it.

unfortunately, though, forcing language change seldom works, and ultimately, all they’re really doing is ushering us onto the next euphemism. wstyler.ucsd.edu/...

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