A ‘euphemism’ is a word or phrase intended to make something uncomfortable sound more palatable.
The most significant impact of euphemisms is that they soften the blow of unsavoury concepts, making them seem less grave, less urgent, robbing them of gravitas. This is its function — if a euphemism feels comfortable, it’s doing its job. Some may argue that ‘political correctness’ (PC) is a euphemism for ‘euphemisms’. That PC culture also tries to make unsavoury things more palatable. The distinction is that the function of a euphemism is to make the speaker feel more comfortable; political correctness is to make the subject being spoken about feel respected. Calling Hindu-supremacy an ‘Indic Lens’ is euphemism. Saying ‘sex-worker’ instead of ‘prostitute’ is political correctness. With this in mind, let’s talk euphemisms. First off, why should we care?
They’ve Only Been Getting Worse
Social critic George Carlin illustrates an example:
- American soldiers came back from WWI with severe mental health issues, to the point of nervous breakdowns. Doctors called this ‘Shell Shock’
- 30 years later, when soldiers came back from WWII, the same condition was called ‘Battle Fatigue’
- Some 7 years later, during the US-Korea War, troops were warned they might experience ‘Operational Exhaustion’
- US-Vietnam war and onwards, we know this condition as ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’
We started off with 2 syllables that pack a punch and ended up with 8 syllables and a hyphen. By the time you finish saying the words and gather what they mean, you’ve missed their urgency, their gravitas.
Whose Comfort Is It Anyway?
Let’s take the disabilities’ space where i work as a fellow as an example. ‘cognitive impairment’ has come to replace ‘mental retardation’. This takes into account that ‘retarded’ has over the years acquired pejorative connotations. Thus, it gives due respect to the subject being spoken about and is not solely for the comfort of the speaker. That is political correctness, not euphemism. But I believe some other terms in the disability dictionary are diluted to the point of no longer conveying the gravitas of living in a world where everything is stacked against you. Here goes:-
- Special: It’s patronizing. Saying someone has ‘special needs’ makes sense; but to say someone is ‘special’ seems to skirt the real issue. It indicates a discomfort among abled persons in acknowledging our privilege. It allows abled people to use semantic gymnastics to dodge acknowledging our privilege — “We’re not discussing if I’m at an advantage. Let’s talk about them being special!”
- Differently Abled: Empty of any meaning. Everyone is differently abled. Everyone has different abilities. This phrase doesn’t do justice to a group that faces not just different but additional challenges to their daily basic functioning. The by-product as always is that it becomes more comfortable for abled people to forget to actively work towards inclusion. Actively working towards inclusion requires the advantaged group to acknowledge that another group is at a disadvantage. But if there’s no disadvantage — just a different advantage — what’s there to work towards?
- Person vs. Diagnosis-First Language: Personally, I always use person-first language. That means not saying ‘Autistic Person’ but rather ‘Person with Autism’. I always thought it was the politically correct way of referring to PwDs. But recently I was made to realise it’s not that black-and-white. A co-Fellow sent me an interview of people on the Autism Spectrum. The general consensus among the interviewees was that it didn’t matter much either way — person or diagnosis-first language. However, some interesting points came up.
One of the participants said she felt like person-first language was just a way for neurotypicals to feel comfortable (i.e. a euphemism). She said person-first language feels like abled people’s way of trying to be as nice as possible; as if to say “Oh don’t worry! You’re not that different! You’re still a person, just like us normals! But with Autism, lil bit different only!” Another participant said they used diagnosis-first language because they believed their diagnosis was a large part of their identity:
“My Autism makes up me, it’s not just a part of me. My diabetes is a part of me…but my Autism affects the way I see the world, the way I process, the way I feel things…”Source
After much pondering, I don’t think either is blanketly more appropriate — person-first or diagnosis-first language. So I guess I’m going to treat it like pronouns and figure out the preference of the person I’m speaking about.
Look Beyond Pretty Words
As individuals, I think to do better would mean to start by recognising that language matters, abandon euphemism, and call a spade a ‘spade’ (unless the spade wants to be called something else). But as a culture, euphemisms aren’t going anywhere. All that’s left to do then is to recognize the wool being pulled over our eyes.