In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the euphemism treadmill.
Psychologist and linguist Stephen Pinker coined the term euphemism treadmill 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, society generates a new “correct” euphemism. Then that chugs along for a while until it picks up the taint as well, and people seek a new term.
A matter of racism
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 most derogatory N-word derives from the Latin for black, but countless layers of complexity and history have piled up on top of it. All that complexity and history passes right on along to the next popular term people choose.
Pinker also gives the example of water closet/bathroom/restroom/lavatory. The issue is that people view what happens in/on a toilet as socially unpalatable, no matter what word you use for it. Garbage collection/sanitation/environmental services is another example; if people believe that what’s involved is dirty, that figurative dirt is going to rub off on the word.
This doesn’t mean that we should consider insults to be acceptable. Rather, it means that change has to occur at the level of the underlying issue, not at the level of euphemistic words.
What do people want to be called?
Pinker points out that one way to show respect is by 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 use of the word “deaf”. Apparently, they didn’t bother to ask any deaf people what they preferred, because they identified as deaf. 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.
Just another word
UC San Diego assistant professor Will Styler offers the example of retarded/retardation. “Retarded” became popular in the 1950s as a euphemism for people who were previously referred to as “slow”. Despite the fact that retarded is just another word for slow, “retarded” became the new 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, some people view “the R- word” as being on the same level as “the N- word”.
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 people use 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?
- Pinker, S. (1994). The game of the name. The New York Times.
- Styler, W. (2012). The R word and the euphemism treadmill. Notes from a Linguistic Mystic.
There’s more on language issues and mental illness stigma in the post The Problem with Language Policing.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.