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The Euphemistic Treadmill

Over the years, I've noticed a strange trend in how we describe and talk about unpleasant things. Every couple of years or so, a new term replaces an old term that has now become "problematic." Even if these words are very literal descriptions of a phenomenon (like mental retardation, for example). It seems two things happen in tandem (but not always necessarily) to force a change in how a word is understood by broader society. 

The first thing is shortening, which is a normal thing that happens in slang and the transformation of words. So, mental retardation, or someone being mentally retarded, changes from a two-word phrase to a single-word "retardation" or "retarded." And the second thing is that the word begins to be used pejoratively instead of descriptively. 

For the record, I'm talking strictly about the use and enforcement of different terms in the colloquial language that is spoken by the layman. I'm sure there could be some relevant cases for technical or legal work where more specific, defined explanations of phenomena can make things more clear and easier to understand.

While admittedly, pejorative usage is probably a bad thing. My observation here isn't about the negative aspects of pejorative use, rather it's that we feel the need to invent a new term that supposedly sounds "nicer." Homeless to unhoused, slave to enslaved person, for example. The examples can continue, but my confusion is that I just don't see a way in which these terms that refer to unpleasant things, situations, and ideas won't just backslide into being used in a way similar to the words they replaced. 

I've never spoken to people who push for the changing of terms, and I'm sure there are plenty of positive examples of this happening. I guess my question is what are the differences between a successful or failed attempt at this? Presumably a change in the way people think about the subjects of certain words would be a prerequisite for a successful change of a potentially problematic term to a more polite and positive one. Perhaps that is the difference and maybe this work that should be done on the front end is either not being done effectively or is silly?

That seems like a good place to start. For example, I cannot fathom how "unhoused" is more polite than "homeless." And the work that has been done to make this idea more coherent doesn't seem to have been done well. I've heard that the term unhoused person is supposed to center the personhood of an individual too poor to own or rent a house or shelter for themselves, whereas homeless is a term that describes in the negative and carries a negative connotation. 

While I do think that when it comes to language, there is a negativity creep that seeps into every word we use to describe an unpleasant situation, person, or idea.  Anecdotally, this seems to be the case, I'm just not sure going on to more and more esoteric language to describe unpleasant situations because of a negativity creep will actually stop the creep from happening. 

These are just some incomplete thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head. I know I didn't come close to actually answering something, but here are my musings! 

I've been way past due for a Sunday blog :) 


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