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  • Writer's pictureMichael W Rickard II

The Euphemism Treadmill: When Will It End?

Copyright 2018 by Michael W. RIckard II

Here's another commentary I wrote for a class I took this year, "Introduction to Lexicography."

The saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is proven wrong as shown by the articles “The Handling of Down Syndrome and Related Terms in Modern Dictionaries” and “Defining Racial Labels: Problems and Promise in American

Dictionaries.” As the two articles argue, words can hurt, even when they are used out of ignorance rather than maliciousness. The role of lexicographers in remedying these problems can prove challenging as I suggest.

Jost and Crocker’s "The Handling of Down Syndrome and Related Terms in Modern Dictionaries” demonstrates the bias inherent in words and their negative effects on people. The term “Mongoloid” as used to describe people with what is now referred to as Down’s Syndrome is problematic because it has a bias against people of the Mongolian region.

Jost and Crocker’s article reminds me of when I worked for an agency that helps people with disabilities. The job was interesting for many reasons, but in terms of lexicography, it was interesting because I learned about terminology relating to my clients. For example, while I knew the term handicapped was seen as outdated, I was unaware that the term “disabled person” was also outdated. Instead, the term “person with a disability” was preferred. I also interacted with people from the deaf community and discovered the term “hard of hearing” was frowned upon also. Many people from the deaf community I interacted with preferred the word “deaf.” I also became familiar with the term “developmentally delayed” in place of “retarded.”

Murphy’s "Defining Racial Labels: Problems and Promise in American Dictionaries” presents the many difficulties with describing a person’s ethnicity based on skin color. It also highlights the ever-changing usage of these descriptors. There is no denying the past usage of descriptions such as Caucasian, white, black, Negro, colored, and others to privilege people and marginalize others. The question becomes, how to deal with such labels.

I have been troubled by the use of the word race because there is no scientific basis to prove there are separate racial groups. Ethnicity is plausible but it has been slow in being adopted. Murphy’s discussion of the various boxes for people to classify themselves as shows the confusion and in my opinion, the absurdity of the current terminology. For example, I have seen questionnaires with “White, Black, Asian, non-white Hispanic.” I have seen others with “White, Black, Asian, Native American, Other.” There does not seem to be any consensus and haphazard changes to these various classifications impede progress in understanding the true nature of ethnicity. These ever-changing labels seem counterproductive as people grow frustrated with a lack of stability in identity.

Another example of the murky nature of classification are terms such as “Caucasian.” As For example, Murphy notes, “Currently, white is most often used in this country as a synonym for ‘person of strictly European descent’ rather than ‘member of the so-called Caucasoid racial group’” (49). The need for streamlining of our terminology for describing people is only to get more confusing as people ask why their ethnicity is labeled as “other,” something which likely makes some people feel marginalized.

While Jost and Crocker’s article dealt with the term “Mongoloid,” and the shift to “Down’s Syndrome,” their statement: That thought became outmoded and offensive, as did the limited view of the world in which it was formed. People certainly ought to correct such terminology, and this has been done. Dictionaries may simply record the correction and, by so doing, advise their readers of this victory for a larger view of humankind. (107) is applicable to society’s shifting sensibilities concerning nomenclature such as the evolution of terms such as “colored persons” to “people of color.” Some descriptors that might have been acceptable at one point in time do not stay the same, particularly when the argument can be made that the descriptor was made by a group other than the one being described.

I’d like to comment on the term, Indian. Over the years I’ve remembered people using the word Indian, American-Indian, and the current term Native American to refer to indigenous people of America. Most, but not all Indians I know (I am of Native-American descent) use the term Indian to describe their heritage. Without going off on too much of a tangent, I think a comment by a friend shows some Indians’ feelings towards the shifting nomenclature. We were discussing the word “redskin” and how it had (rightfully in my opinion) come under fire. He commented that people were more concerned with changing the nomenclature than with actually helping Indians.

As if the questions of rectifying wrongs in language isn’t murky enough, the question of the euphemism treadmill has been noted. The concept of one euphemism shifting to another has been identified as “the euphemism treadmill.” I came across this term in a blog and the author noted, “Stephen Pinker in his 2003 book The Blank Slate coined the name euphemism treadmill for the process whereby words introduced to replace an offensive word, over time become offensive themselves. A current example of this is mental retardation” (Hingston). Based on our traditional understanding of lexicography, lexicographers are not designed to enforce language, but to record it. If so, the euphemism treadmill will be just one of many problems affecting them.

Works Cited

Hingston, Stan. “The Euphemism Treadmill - replacing the "R-Word." The English Cowpath. 17 June 2011. Accessed 1 May 108.

Jost, David A. & Crocker, Allen C. "The Handling of Down Syndrome and Related Terms in

Modern Dictionaries." Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, vol. 9, 1987, pp. 97-109. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/dic.1987.0007

Murphy, M. Lynne. "Defining Racial Labels: Problems and Promise in American Dictionaries." Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, vol. 13, 1991, pp. 43-64. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/dic.1991.0015

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