What Is… the Euphemism Treadmill

Steven Pinker's euphemism treadmill: how socially acceptable words become tainted by prejudice around what they refer to

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.

Figurative dirt

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?


There’s more on language issues and mental illness stigma in the post The Problem with Language Policing.

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

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 headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

52 thoughts on “What Is… the Euphemism Treadmill”

  1. I hate all this labeling and nastiness. Sometimes people simply don’t know, like when they use “gyp” for ripped off, not understanding that it’s a put down of gypsies. Except! We’re not allowed to use “gypsies” now ~ it’s Roma. So, since we DON’T use gypsy to refer to Roma, can we say gyp? Probably not, though it makes no sense. Same with retarded. We don’t call mentally handicapped people retarded now, or idiots or imbeciles. So why can’t we use the word in regular speech to mean stupid? Idk! We aren’t really supposed to use stupid either. It’s all so complicated except when a word is clearly derogatory AND someone uses it deliberately ~ like the N-word

    1. Yeah, failure to keep up with the latest terms doesn’t make someone prejudiced. And terms like gypped are such a part of common usage that I don’t think most people are even considering where they came from.

  2. I’m not sure my comments will work on your site, Ashleyleia. There’s some kind of problem. BUT I’ll try. In answer to your question: IF I understand it (which I’m not sure I do exactly)

    What do you think of this concept? Do you think it’s accurate?

    A euphemism “treadmill” seems to infer that something is perpetuating; generating ‘more’ (energy, meaning, whatever). A euphemism is merely a word that has taken on a negative connotation for whatever reason (it’s implicitly derogatory, its meaning is ugly by current standards of polite society, it is used by a group that is unpopular because they hold ugly beliefs or tenets.

    The “N” word was thrown about freely in my mother and father’s generations. EVERYONE said it, and from what I understand, not being a black person, it was a term among that group that meant “lazy and no-good”…so if a black person called another black person a “N*…” they were offering criticism.

    I’m not sure when white people (or any other color besides black) got associated with using “N” as a racial slur word (which I agree it IS), but it isn’t a good thing to say in these times, to anyone. Particularly if one is a white person and particularly if it’s said to a black person.

    Personally I think any word that degrades another person or group isn’t worth my time to use.

    The “R” word though is harder to shed. “Retard” also means to stunt or prevent growing (Merriam-Webster), it didn’t always refer to someone with intellectual or cognitive challenges. I grew up using “R” in every day conversation and it wasn’t a big deal. The people who were (presumably) actually retarded (with developmental difficulties) were labelled and judged by the word.

    I catch myself saying “R” sometimes, not consciously, but it’s part of my verbal ‘history’ if you will. It’s only recently that politically correct has taken center stage and all forms of racial or derogatory, shaming or belittling words have become a thing of shame themselves. Maybe for good reason, but sometimes I wonder if things haven’t gone too far in trying to shelter everyone from any kind of hurt.

    There are vile and ugly people in the world and we’re all going to encounter them sometimes. It’s better, in my opinion, to grow a bit of a thick skin and learn to deflect the insult back to the person giving it, than to try to shield ourselves continually by what is amounting to censorship in some cases.

    Common sense is the most lacking in the euphemism treadmill school of thought SOMETIMES.

    1. Yeah, common sense would say if people are prejudiced, changing the word isn’t going to stop that. And the “R” word slips out of my mouth too sometimes, yet it would never even cross my mind to say it to someone with a disability. It would be nice if instead of superficially focusing on words, more could be done to target the stereotypes and misconceptions that turn regular words into insults.

  3. I remember my mom telling us about the word “fag” meant when she was in school. It meant “cigarette”.
    I am not sure when it started being said for gay people. The earliest I remember is on the tv show ‘All In The Family”. Archie Bunker used it quite a lot.
    I hope I have understood your article.

    1. Definitely. The word was fine until it got attached to a group that was the target of prejudice. It’s the Archie Bunker attitudes that are the really important think to tackle.

  4. I think it’s accurate. I never thought about it before either. In a way, it’s like a domino effect. One word picks up the leaven of another, and the whole lump of words is thus leavened.

    To ask someone what THEY would like to be called is a show of respect. To determine, on the basis of something that hasn’t worked previously, how someone should be addressed — without directly asking the person what is their preference — is disrespectful.

    It also explains a lot of the frustration with political correctness, and why the preferred terms keep changing. Another very thought-provoking post.

    1. It really does explain a lot. And actually asking people what they’d like to be called shouldn’t be so earthshaking, but yet it happens so little.

      1. I wonder why it happens so infrequently. I myself would be hesitant to decide how to address or identify something unless I were certain they were comfortable with it. But it seems many people do the exact opposite. I wonder why? Any ideas?

        1. Hmm… Well, from a symbolic interactionist perspective, language serves as symbols for attributing meaning to others and their actions. If that language represents people who are somehow “other,” perhaps the symbolic language they use becomes less relevant. I’m just pulling that out of my ass, but I suspect there is some element of social hierarchy and devaluing.

          1. Yes, though perhaps unconsciously. In my former situation, I and others who lived outdoors found ourselves often discussed in third person, even though we were situated right by the people carrying on the discussion. This carried with it an elements of social hierarchy and devaluing, although I’m not sure how many people were aware they were doing so. The tacit assumption that our own input was irrelevant was so pervasive, it infiltrated the social mores of those who lived indoors. However, there may have also been an understandable fear of talking with us directly — a kind of fear of the unknown, concerned about what might transpire.

            1. Also, I had to look up “symbolic interactionism.” I found a Wiki on it, but will have to learn more before commenting on that aspect of your reply.

            1. I saw it as a positive thing. It’s not so much that you “missed” the text as that you were able to “overlook” the error in the text in order to grasp the intended context. You’re probably very intuitive.

  5. Fascinating! I haven’t heard of this concept before, but I know of Pinker and read The Language Instinct many years ago. My wife’s a communication expert and this will be relevant to her work in care homes. I’ll ask her what she thinks!

      1. She hadn’t heard the term “euphemistic treadmill” before, but she’s familiar with the concept. She challenges care home staff to think about the language they use. Simply replacing one label with another is a bad option. Much better to address the underlying issue. For example, “challenging behaviour” is a euphemism which has spawned some newer replacements. But the underlying issue is that the person is trying to communicate something with their behaviour, and that’s what care home staff ideally ought to be looking for… Not merely a new phrase to describe the phenomenon.

        1. Definitely. If a behaviour is challenging, is because the staff haven’t figured out how to be effective, regardless of what label they slap on it.

  6. All of the categorizing of people and what sounds socially acceptable is bullshit. To become an evolved society we must do away with the animalistic behavior of judgement upon EVERYTHING. In my humble opinion it’s gotten completely out of hand. Drilling down and constantly changing these terms further adds stigma and creates more and more separatism which creates more chaos. Doing away with all labels is my battle cry🙏

  7. Part of this relates to why we use labels in the first place. For example my son has complex needs. This is the latest in special needs, disabled etc. I struggle to know how or what to use for terminology because not everyone agrees that each euphemism is correct. Even some disabled prefer differently abled. The thing is to access services people need a diagnosis and these terms can be for that reason. Euphemisms or evolution of words don’t change the situation as you say.

  8. Much food for thought. I notice that many americam leftists automatically assume someone using the “wrong” terms is prejudiced. When often it’s usually ignorance.

    Many transgender elders in my country call themselves “a transgender”, “transgendered” but it would so cause an outcry among american leftists……………

    1. Yeah, attacking rather than explaining is unlikely to help anything. And while there’s certainly a fair bit of willful ignorance, a lot of people are just unaware of the “right” terminology. I had used the term transgendered in a post once, and someone pointed out how it was problematic while recognizing that I probably hadn’t intended it that way, and more of that kind of reaction would be a lot more constructive.

      I think it gets murkier with phrasing like “all lives matter” that arose specifically to diminish other people’s experiences.

  9. This is honestly how I feel about the whole identity-first vs. person-first debate in neurodiversity. I don’t super care which one is used, because, frankly, I’ve heard both used in traumatic ways. If the person saying it fundamentally doesn’t see a ‘person with autism’ or an ‘autistic person’ as a person, does it really matter how they attempt to cover over it with ‘polite’ neurotypical language? If you see me as *me*, call me whatever. (Okay, not really. Call me neurodiverse for now because you know me well enough to know that is the only version I can say without potentially triggering myself. But, if I ever get over those linkages, then I presumably won’t care.) But, if you don’t see me as a person, then GTFO. You’re the reason I have such bad associations with either version. And, I will see right through any ‘socially acceptable’ ways to politely obfuscate what a jerk you are. But, I haven’t known how to phrase that feeling, and the issue is *so* huge in neurodiverse spaces. I don’t even want to be involved, honestly, even to the degree of writing a post on why I use the ter.s I do. Because it’s so contentious in the community I’d just feel like I was painting a target on myself. But, I may have to reference the euphemism treadmill if I ever do decide to tackle a post on identity language and neurodiversity.

    1. I agree. The ones who see an actual person underneath are not the problem, and who cares if they don’t use the “right” term; they’re unlikely to use something that’s wildly inappropriate. It’s the people who only see the autism (or whatever it might be) who are the problem, whatever words they choose to use, and political correctness is not going to clean up that hot mess.

  10. I maintain deep distain for any terminology used to describe, label, or identify any person or group. “Black(s), Brown(s), Red(s), Yellow(s), White(s)” … if we keep referring to people in terms of colours, we perpetuate racism. I hate being called White.

  11. We actually had the “Spastic Society” which was a charitable organisation for children with disabilities. The word “spasctic” became a popular derogatory term to use when joking around with friends in the 60’s and early 70’s. Urgh! I hate that word now.

  12. A web search brought me here because I had never heard of the ‘treadmill’. The idea was already familiar in the 70s, without a catchy phrase & Wikipedia says
    “euphemisms themselves become taboo words, through the linguistic process of semantic change known as pejoration, which University of Oregon linguist Sharon Henderson Taylor dubbed the “euphemism cycle” in 1974″
    Interesting discussion and good blog, by the way.

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