The linguistic and cultural phenomenon known as a euphemism is one familiar to many English speakers as a polite or indirect way of expressing a taboo topic. Coming from the Greek euphemismos meaning ‘speaking well’, euphemisms are linguistic devices which occur in everyday social interactions across the world. They are used mostly as an alleviative strategy to soften or neutralise unpleasant expressions and concepts, replacing them with an alternative, more neutral wording or phrasing in order to remain polite and potentially save the speaker or hearer from embarrassment.
Given its grim and morbid nature, death is a common target for euphemisms, as phrases such as “passing away”, “putting to sleep”, and “ethnic cleansing” are all death-related euphemisms for dying, euthanasia, and genocide respectively. Other common hotbeds for euphemisms in English include topics surrounding sex, weight, disability, and bodily functions. As well as reducing the degree of intensity, (by describing a poor person as “underprivileged” or referring to Voldemort as “He who must not be named”), people also use euphemisms to embellish a subject, making it seem better or of greater importance (by referring to a shop using words like “boutique” or “emporium” for instance). Their presence across all known world languages constitutes a linguistic universal according to research from Allan and Burridge (1991). Given this reported presence across all languages, there is plenty of research on how euphemisms differ between languages, particularly with respect to English.
Practicalities of the euphemism
All euphemisms can be guided loosely by a set of principles. A newly formed euphemism must follow three principles, concludes a recent study. It must be distant enough from the unpleasant topic it covers, related enough to the concept in order to make an indirect link and pleasant enough that it brings to mind a better connotation. To illustrate this, consider the term “adult entertainment” as a euphemism for pornography. Assuming everyone in a given conversation is familiar with this taboo topic, using the euphemism “adult entertainment” brings to mind a mild-enough association with the likely-inappropriate concept in conversation without being too associated or too irrelevant whilst avoiding much embarrassment due to the euphemism’s connotation being considerably less unpleasant.
One interesting product of certain euphemisms is humour. Dialogue from the first season of British TV Drama ‘Downton Abbey’ presents a great opportunity to study euphemisms and their uses. In the context of the programme, authors of a study explain euphemisms can be used to make sentences more “vivid and pleasant” to the audience and can thus produce a sense of humour. Examples of such include the use of the phrases “not a lady’s man” and “a troubled soul” by a servant to describe a homosexual character as well as the state of pregnancy being referred to as “a surge of fertility” by a doctor, which the authors suggest is indirect and non-offensive and yet still expresses what the character wants to imply. Another interesting area this drama represents is a person’s use of euphemisms in relation to their social class. In certain cultures, this can be an interesting domain for euphemisms. A study contrasting Chinese and English euphemisms found that English speakers are more sensitive towards class division than Chinese speakers, evident from the use of euphemistic phrases such as “economy class” instead of “second class” in order to avoid appearing seemingly inferior.
Death is an enduring concept that is also euphemised in many cultures and languages. However, cultures have been shown to differ in their perception of death, and consequently, the terms they use to discuss it. Another recent study compared the use of euphemisms inscribed on gravestones across an English cemetery and a Spanish one and found that both languages culturally perceived death as a departure but in different ways through their use of euphemisms. Spanish epitaphs made a heavenly destination explicit, perceiving death as a reward by emphasising the final part of the journey, whereas the English perception to death was more life-like, euphemising it as a means of ascension and focusing on the starting point of the journey with euphemisms evoking that the deceased is merely absent, denying death altogether. The above study on Chinese and English euphemisms found that the Chinese perceive the death of the ruling class as more euphemism-worthy than the death of a common person, as the term jià bēng (驾崩) meaning ‘the collapse of a big mountain’ is only ever applied to the death of the ruling class whereas the death of a common person is plainly referred to as death without any attempt at euphemising.
Euphemisms and their supposed trajectory
Newly-coined words or phrases often arrive in languages as euphemisms to replace pre-existing terms stigmatised as taboo or uneasy to talk about socially. In time and through frequent use, however, a coined euphemism’s familiarity can work against its effectiveness in mitigating any embarrassment for the speaker or hearer and begin to embody the negative essence of the unpleasant concept it covers. In a 1994 New York Times article ‘The game of the name’, Steven Pinker introduced the concept of the “euphemism treadmill”. The only gym-related metaphor for a linguistic concept to this writer’s knowledge given the lack of any ‘Great Vowel Lifts’ or instances of ‘rep-ositional stranding’, Pinker explained that new, ‘polite’ words are invented to refer to “emotionally laden or distasteful things” such as swear words or terms for describing ethnic minorities or people with learning difficulties, but these new words can become “tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations”.
To illustrate this concept, recall the film character Forrest Gump. Now consider describing him to someone who is unfamiliar with the film. Besides being good-hearted, compassionate and superbly athletic, a difficulty may arise when describing his below-average intelligence. Those who are careful or up-to-date may use terms such as “slow-witted” or “below-average” but a phrase such as “mentally retarded” would be perceived as relatively more insulting and politically incorrect. Given that the film was released over 20 years ago, a contemporary 1994 review from The Guardian—a centre-left British newspaper known for their acceptance of political correctness—still included the terms “idiot savant”, “daft”, and “mentally-disadvantaged” in the discourse; words that perhaps carry a more negative connotation these days and terms that said newspaper would certainly be far more hesitant in using at face value nowadays, revealing that in the intervening 21 years, the euphemism treadmill has indeed been on full power.
Pinker elaborated that when a taboo concept is given a new euphemistic label, it is the label which can become tainted by the concept and degenerate into a dysphemism through contamination but it is never the case where the taboo concept is freshened by the new name. He highlighted that the concept is “in charge” and not the terms or words themselves; that swear words or taboo phrases endure for a longer time than their euphemistic counterparts. Entailing a permanent cycle, Pinker furthermore criticised and trivialised the need for this treadmill in society by concluding that we will know when equality and mutual respect has been achieved once names for minorities stay put.
Former IQ classifications
Returning to the concept of people with learning difficulties, people with an IQ range of 50–74, 25–49 and 0–24 in an old IQ classification table (Levine & Marks, 1928) were respectively classified as “morons”, “imbeciles”, and “idiots”. While these terms on their own appear innocent enough and even mildly humorous given their more trivial and less offensive modern usage, in 1928 they denoted contemporary terms for classifying individuals with mental or intellectual disabilities. As is the nature of the euphemism treadmill, new terms arose for classifying those with a low Intelligence Quotient once these terms became taboo.
A later classification table in 1986—The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale—classified those with an IQ range of 68–78 as “slow learners” and anyone below 67 as “mentally retarded”, arguably being far more likely to cause offense when uttered than the three abovementioned classifications, having more negative contemporary connotations. In comparing these classifications, it is evident that the first set of words has acquired a more positive or neutral meaning over time (amelioration) and the second set has undergone an opposite process, becoming more negative over time (pejoration).
As the first set of classifications was constructed over 85 years ago, one could hypothesise that an explanation for their amelioration lies in their association with a bygone era; that their previous meanings are detached from present-day life with the words (and not the concepts for which they previously stood) therefore embodying a more novel meaning. This embodiment is also apparent in terms such as ‘simpleton’, ‘oaf’ and ‘ne’er-do-well’ which are less commonly used these days but when present, tend mostly to appear for comic effect.
Given the speculation that over time there appears to come a point at which terms stigmatised as negative and/or politically incorrect may reverse their current semantic orientation—that there exists a ‘reverse button’ on this euphemism treadmill—, one could speculate by extension that the second set of classifications from 1986 may also follow a similar pattern in time. From their present-day negative association, it may only be a matter of time before the contemporary connotations of the phrase “mentally retarded” become obsolete by association (or lack thereof) and thus develop a more acceptable, less-offensive meaning in an English speaker’s lexicon. Further research is evidently required, given how tenuous these claims currently are.
From the abovementioned studies and the speculative proposal, one can safely conclude that the cultural environment is a powerful force in shaping how euphemisms manifest in language. Like every element of a language that continues to change, the euphemism will persist as a phenomenon across all languages in motion. The apt metaphor of the euphemism treadmill—itself signifying movement—is an interesting sub-phenomenon in that the connotations of a coined euphemism will not always remain constant, regardless of a euphemism’s intended use. For what is essentially a household linguistic concept, the euphemism and its role in society remains a potential hot topic for further investigation and research.