In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the euphemism treadmill.
The term euphemism treadmill was coined by psychologist and linguist Stephen Pinker in a 1994 article in the New York Times. It refers to a process by which words that are used as a euphemism for a concept that’s somehow tainted then end up becoming tainted themselves by association. At that point, a new euphemism identified that’s considered socially correct, and it chugs along for a while until it becomes tainted too, and a new term is sought.
Pinker pointed out that a good indication that there’s an underlying issue is that the euphemism treadmill keeps coming up with terms that are essentially synonymous with one another, e.g. coloured people, people of colour, Negro (literally, Spanish for black), and black.
That underlying issue is, in the case of skin colour, racism. Even the particular N-word that’s considered most derogatory is derived from the Latin for black, but with countless layers of complexity and history piled on top of it. All that complexity and history just keeps getting loaded onto the next popular term that comes along.
Pinker also gives the example of water closet/bathroom/restroom/lavatory. The issue is that what happens in/on a toilet is considered socially unpalatable, no matter what word you use for it. Garbage collection/sanitation/environmental services is another example; if what’s involved is considered dirty, that figurative dirt is going to rub off on the word.
This doesn’t mean that insults should be considered acceptable. Rather, it means that change has to occur at the level of the underlying issue, not at the level of euphemistic words.
Pinker points out that one thing that shows respect is asking people what they want to be called. He pointed out that the L.A. Times style guidelines at the time didn’t allow the word “deaf” to be used, apparently without bothering to ask any deaf people what their preference was. He suggested that we’ll. probably be able to tell the underlying issue has been resolved when the terms involved stay the same with no need for the euphemism treadmill to come up with new ones.
UC San Diego assistant professor Will Styler offers the example of retarded/retardation. “Retarded” became popular in the 1950’s as a euphemism for people who were previously referred to as “slow.” Despite the fact that they means basically the same thing, “retarded”. became the proper thing to say. Styler observes that it was around 1980 that “that’s so retarded” really started to become popular, and as the word picked up more negative associations, new euphemisms were found. Now, “the R- word” is used by some the same way “the N- word” is.
The word without the connotations is just another word. The most disruptive symptom of my depression, psychomotor retardation, is simply its literal meaning, mind-movement-slowing. There’s nothing pejorative about that.
I think this definitely has implications for the fight against mental illness stigma. The words that are used to refer to those of us with mental illness have changed over the years, but the stigma is still there. If attitudes don’t change, changing the words just keeps the euphemism treadmill going.
What do you think of this concept? Do you think it’s accurate?