The English Cowpath: The Euphemism Treadmill – replacing the “R-Word”

Perhaps, following the trend noted in the previous paragraph, “disabilities” will give way to “challenges”. But one thing in their favor is they don’t lend themselves as readily to insults. I can’t quite imagine children taunting each other with “Look where yer goin’, ya challenge!”

via The English Cowpath: The Euphemism Treadmill – replacing the “R-Word”

What’s in a word? Only what we put into it, at the end of the day. A rose under another name would indeed smell just as sweet, but imagine the freakish event the word “rose” were to be somehow used in a derogatory way with an intent to wound. Imagine this was done long enough by a considerable number of people. It would then eventually need to be replaced by another word to denote this sweet flower, a word which hadn’t by this described process aquired its own insulting connotations. The word “rose” itself wouldn’t sound as sweet.

When I was suffering from a long term chronic illness, in the 90s I was told by some “able” person that it was not the done thing to say “handicapped”. This was despite in effect feeling very much, modesty notwithstanding, like a racehorse carrying such a load of weights that I was reduced to watching the other ponies gallop their way through life. That word was offensive, it seemed. I thought instead it was very apt. Perhaps this person thought that because I wasn’t visibly incpacitated I was referring to “the other” rather than including myself in this group. I remember they didn’t seem convinced by my claim to this despite my diagnosis.

The word “retarded” originates from the French, in which its counterpart “retardé” means “delayed”. Does that word seem familiar nowadays in relation to neurodevelopment? Has anything really changed with the adoption of referring to the same concept but in a different guise? Would this deal with the fact that the uncharitable have chosen to apply a negative value judgement connotation to this concept? Can many claim to have never in any way ridiculed another with its associated contemptuous stereotypical image and therefore not be included among the uncharitable even in passing?

Can you cover up Human nature’s less appealing features with euphemisms, or is it better to instead reiterate and confirm the neutral, clinical, and truer sense of the words we chose to apply in the first place, in our better moments and with our best intentions. Perhaps rather than concede defeat to the insidious process which debases words and which drives the treadmill an effort could be made to focus on what these words were meant to refer to in the first place. Are we attempting to deny some collective Jungian shadow?

Things and ideas need need names in order to be referred to meaningfully. When these names are required to change on a regular basis what then happens to Meaning itself? Given the strange evolution of language which constantly occurs from season to season in the schoolyard I can well imagine that “challenged” will one day go the same way as “special” already seems to be going. We’re going to need a bigger Lexicon, or effectively deal with our failings it would seem.

Author: Dominic Pukallus

I'm interested in things.

6 thoughts on “The English Cowpath: The Euphemism Treadmill – replacing the “R-Word”

  1. I understand what you’re saying and I tend not to like euphemisms. “Passed away” for “died” drives me crazy. At the same time, I can see the point in changing words as perhaps by constant change they lose their sense of “defining labels” that can feel patronising and limiting. The thing is, while you may have completely felt a sense of being handicapped and that the term was apt for you, someone else may not feel that term applies to them, even if others might tend to think of them as handicapped because they are missing a leg or whatever. People’s sense of their own handicap can vary enormously and appearances can be very deceptive. As you say, you didn’t look handicapped particularly but felt it strongly whereas someone else may seem to be handicapped from appearances but not feel it particularly because it doesn’t feel to them as though it hampers them in living their life.

    I think labelling of things is simply a tricky matter. They used to use “spastic” while now we simply use the more medical-sounding “cerebral palsy”. I think it makes it easier where there is a very specific medical name you can use but when it’s an umbrella situation such as “handicapped” it’s more difficult I think.

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    1. You make a good point about someone who may seem to be handicapped, or disabled, from appearances not feeling that these labels apply to them. The problem is, how do you refer to such a person in a way that isn’t cumbersome or awkward? You would need at least a few words, or invent a specific word for brevity. I remember in a Disability Support Worker position I held there was an insistence on referring to clients (people I supported professionally in return for money) as “people we support”. There is a certain absurdity in using 3 words when a single one will do, and a perfectly good neutral one at that. In this position there was a taboo on the word “helping” as well.

      There does seem to be a certain amount of ideology involved in these taboos, with a certain amount of projected negative meaning of these words implied. I would add yet another question to follow my post which is already so full of them, and ask why focus so much on any potential negative connotations rather than focus on the neutral or positive ones? From this follows also that when modifications and accommodations have to be made for people whether for physical, psychosocial, or sensory access, is it realistic to deny that this is due in some way to a limitation (or handicap) imposed upon these people? After all, “ability” could be said to be the capacity to function with the minimum of such support. I am not so dependent psychologically on my current position as a Support Worker (though I can say I was at some earlier point in my Recovery) that I would’t love that there was no need for it. I’m sure there are other worthy things to do.

      My quibble is with the denial of this dependency on support as being at the very least logistically a detriment or undesirable, this denial being on the grounds that detriment incurred has something to do with the individual’s inherent worth. This is where the idea of the Jungian shadow comes in. Rather than address the issue of someone’s need for support being falsely equated with lower inherent worth, there seems to me to be the imperative to attempt avoiding it altogether by playing word games. As long as you do this, you will need to keep inventing euphemisms as the old ones get tainted by this shadow. Perhaps I’m just being idealistic in proposing we could address this collectively.


      1. I have to agree with you, Dominic. Yes, needing support should not be in any way connected to self-worth. Apart from anything else so many of us need support at some time during our lives. I know I have and I so welcomed it.

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      2. I think it’s a given of the Human condition, that we all need support of one kind or another. Unfortunately, some will require more than the statistically normal amount at times or even permanently. I can’t say I’m that far along my road of Recovery I can claim that I was one of those rather than still being so. It is a spectrum, something I’m familiar with as providing support as a professional to people on the further side of the Autism spectrum I also happen to have been lately diagnosed as being on. I certainly am grateful for the support I received in my own time of illness, am receiving in my convalescence from this, and will receive in my ongoing condition as well as the more mundane variety.

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