Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Half-life of Euphemisms

For no particular reason, I was recently thinking about the futility of the euphemism strategy—replacing a word that has negative connotations in the hope that the change will get rid of the connotations. The problem  is that if, as is usually the case, the connotations are based on what the word means not how it sounds, they will rapidly transfer to the substitute. The record for sequence length may be held by what we now usually refer to as a toilet. I do not know what the earliest term was, but the string includes "privy," "guarderobe," "WC," "lavatory," "bathroom," "toilet," and probably more that I have missed.

A different example that I noticed a few years ago was "gay." It was introduced as a substitute for "homosexual" on the theory that the latter was an insulting term. The problem, as usual, was that what made it insulting was that many people regarded what it described as immoral, disgusting, or both—and although  such feelings may weaken over time, they are not eliminated by a change in label. 

Not only did the negative connotations spread to the new word, the effect was not limited to its euphemistic use—a fact I discovered listening to casual chatter on World of Warcraft. Posters routinely used "gay" as a general purpose negative term, often with no connection to homosexuality. "That's gay" meant, more or less, "isn't that terrible."

There used to be a theory known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which language shaped thought. As best I can tell, the supposed evidence for it was mostly bogus. The euphemism strategy is the applied version.

And doesn't work.


AW said...

What you're describing has been called the 'euphemism treadmill' by Stephen Pinker, when polite words become vulgar when a given number of people use them as such.

I never noticeded the connection with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I usually thought of this occuring to prevent offense to groups of people, like with 'gay' or black in some contexts today (as opposed to trying to change the way people think). Needless to say, my theory doesn't explain why there are euphemisms for bathrooms.

Brandon Berg said...

Another example is terms for mental retardation. "Idiot" was originally a clinical term, but became an insult. Then "mentally retarded," but "retarded" turned into a general-purpose insult as well. For a time "special" was used as a euphemism, but kids caught onto that and began using that as an insult as well.

Perhaps the solution is to use a euphemism that's simply too unwieldy to be used as a slur.

There's also the opposite process, reclamation, whereby a slur becomes the favored term for a group. "Queer," for example.

Brandon Berg said...

Incidentally, "toilet" itself seems to be a euphemism--in older British literature it's common to see the term used to refer to a dressing room or to the act of grooming.

SB7 said...

IIRC "toilet" has gone through a huge transition, originally meaning all the bits and pieces you needed for doing your hair, then switched to being the case you kept all these things in, then the act of using them, and on and on until we get to the modern usage. Refer to Bill Bryson's "At Home."

Arthur B. said...

I think you're being unfair to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Metaphors ingrained in the language, grammatical structures or the breadth of the vocabulary by topic are supposed to influence thought, not trivial vocabulary isomorphisms.

I speak fluently two languages and have good command of a third. The language I use has a noticeable (at least to me) effect on the way I think.

French feels like a kitchen full of utensils in every size and shape you could possibly need (to understand 95% of the words in a French book, you need about 21,000 words compared to 14,000 for English, 50% more). The price for this wealth of vocabulary is a certain rigidity in expressing new concepts.

English in comparison feels like a Swiss-army knife. It's easier to explore new ideas, nouns can become verbs easily, and post-positions can dramatically alter the meaning of new verbs. The price paid is more ambiguity.

Joshua Kronengold said...

++Authur. If language influences thought, (as well as the other way around, which is obviously true) it's not in tiny vocabulary ways but in terms of what the language provides and how it's put together.

Chris Gilman said...

Sir Guy de Coldrake' s mundane name is John. In his house he refers to the toilet as "the euphemism".

Xerographica said...

Well...if you're in mixed company...and you want to relate what was discussed in trade chat...then boy oh boy...you're going to need a large supply of euphemisms. Same thing with some of the character names. What's a euphemism for SoggyTaint?

Actually, that would make for a pretty decent blog. Instead of "STUFF My Dad Says" you could call it, "STUFF I Heard in Trade Chat".

You know who are the very best at euphemisms? The mormons. My very first girlfriend after my stint in the Army Infantry was a mormon. Hah. That was a lot of fun. Pavlov's dogs would have been proud of me.

William H. Stoddard said...

Years ago I read a historical study of sexual euphemisms, which described almost the reverse process: A word that is originally introduced as a polite metaphor for a sexual concept comes to be used so often that it loses the nonsexual meaning, and is then felt to be too explicit. The original literal usage of the English word "pregnant" was in expressions such as "a pregnant thought," and its use as a synonym for "gravid" or "with child" was a metaphor; but in current use the gynecological meaning is usually understood to be the literal one. A much older example is the Roman avoidance of the crude word cunnus by using the metaphor "sheath"—vagina.

Perhaps not quite the same case is the evolution of the Victorian expression "making love," meaning paying court, to a modern expression for "engaging in sexual activity." I remember, and I expect you may also, the 1950s/1960s popular songs that substituted "make romance" because "make love" was too explicit.

Tidford Tatt said...

In the 1880's the first Royal Warrant for a flush toilet was issued to Thomas Crapper & Co., the first promoter/mass marketer of flush toilets. The family name was emblazoned on each unit, thus eliciting the idiom "going to the Crapper" where one would take a "crap." (There are some businesses to which the family name should perhaps not be attached!)

Through the years idioms evolve, until as now, two entirely separate idioms, "crap" and "political correctness" evolve into having the same meaning.

[re. The first comment above, there is an excellent current interview with Steven Pinker at thefire.org concerning the psychopathy of political correctness.]

Arthur B. said...

@William, an even more striking example is the french word "baiser". Originally meaning "to kiss", it would now translate as "to fuck" or "to shag"

David Friedman said...

According to Wikipedia, the derivation of "crap" from Thomas Crapper is bogus--the word predated the firm by a very long time, and that particular meaning of it predated the firm by at least a little.

Anonymous said...

Sapir-Whorf is empirically verifiable. They did an experiment with remembering differences in shades of color; people who spoke Cryllic languages (which have two words for "blue" and "light blue", like we do for "red" and "pink" (rather than "light red") were significantly more likely to remember that past cards were lighter or darker shades than people who spoke English (because English just has "blue").

Conversely, English speakers outscored some African language or other (I cannot remember the name) that used the same word for "pink", "red", and "orange" when remembering those differences. Imagine how difficult you think it would be to forget the distinction between pink and orange; now imagine forgetting the distinction between Navy and Cyan. That's what it's like for those people. The reason is their language doesn't have comfortable "labels" for those concepts so their brains handle them differently.

Another interesting point is that the Aboriginal language does not include relative directions; there are no words for "left" or "right", merely "east", "west", "north" and "south". Aboriginals are consistently better with directions than English speakers because their brains are more comfortable thinking of things in concrete terms than relative ones.

There are a handful of really fascinating examples like this. The point being, Sapir-Whorf at least has SOME truth to it.

Norm said...

In college in the '60s I had a friend who referred to the toilet as "the euphemism."