Nathanael Green's Blog

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Bad Euphemisms, Political Correctness and Censorship

with 18 comments


It’s Banned Books Week. So in celebration, let’s look at censorship, how politically correct speech is ruining schools and why euphemisms are silly.

Censored words

Does anyone really consider vertically challenged a good alternative to short? Does old really carry such a negative connotation to require us to remove it from our speech?

Some people think so. This article outlines how committees have banned words like bookworm and blind from US textbooks in the interest of sensitivity.

I think it’s ridiculous. Not just because it’s easy to see how being politically correct can be taken too extremes (the article uses the example of The Older Person and the Water to sanitize Hemingway’s famous novella The Old Man and the Sea). And not just because too often this seems to be an effort to protect groups that really feel no need to be protected (many people who can’t hear prefer the term deaf over hearing impaired, even though the former has been stigmatized as politically incorrect). But also because euphemisms rarely stay euphemistic.

Euphemisms go bad.

Words created to soften the blow of something taboo quickly absorb any negative connotations they were meant to avoid in the first place. Linguist Steven Pinker calls this the “euphemism treadmill,” also known as pejoration.

Consider moron. According to an article in American Speech in 1974 by Sharon Henderson Taylor, moron was espoused by the American Association for the Study of the Feebleminded in 1910 because it was a descriptive term, lacking emotional overtones (202). It’s pretty clear that moron has since been disavowed by the medical community and has become a pejorative.

Another telling passage from that same article:

In serious conversation about any unpleasant subject, speakers tend to choose softened terms over their blunter (and often crueler) alternatives. Thus, one will say passed away in preference to died and retarded or slow in preference to stupid. (197)

In 1974, Taylor suggested speakers replace stupid with retarded because originally, it simply meant “hindered, with delayed development, timing or progress.” Today, though, retarded has gone through a process of pejoration where it’s become a taboo, derogatory term.

More examples of good euphemisms gone bad? What about lame to crippled to handicapped and so on? Or George Carlin’s famous discussion on words that hide reality like shell shock to battle fatigue to PTSD?

My point is that attempts to create euphemisms only create a new generation of derogatory terms. As Pinker says in his article “The Game of the Name”:

The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge: give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name.

But what if the idea is to change how we think? To eradicate bad words from our speech so we don’t think in those terms? It’s a noble goal, but …

Bad words don’t go away.

Even if I give no more examples, think about all the dirty words your parents never wanted you to say. Fuck is one of the most enduring, versatile and pervasive words in English, despite it being frowned upon, hushed up, and excluded from print for most of our history.

Trying to hide the words we deem offensive simply doesn’t work. Beyond that, not only do the bad words not disappear, but spackling these ideas they represent with emotionless terms only hides the real issues and removes us from rational debate.

A study by Leaf Van Boven published in Political Psychology connects taboos to pluralistic ignorance:

… people’s desire to avoid public ridicule and to avoid being seen as racist or sexist may lead them to publicly espouse PC attitudes …. even though they  may question those attitudes in private. (269)

Basically, when society seems to espouse certain values, individuals put up a front of the same. But often, it only seems that way because most people are putting up the façade with the belief that everyone else is genuine in their conviction.

True, much of the PC speak we have is a result of issues and prejudices we all struggle with. But if appearing politically correct becomes the issue, then we’re all being disingenuous. Changing the vocabulary we use only hides the issues, instead of addressing them.

Political correctness may hinder education.

I’m reading a fairly scary book titled The Language Police: Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. The author, Diane Ravitch, describes the reaction to a story about ancient Egypt, which was meant to be used as a reading exercise in standardized testing:

A story contrasted how people’s ways of living varied in accordance with their wealth and status. Some lived in palaces, others were noblemen, others were farmers or city workers. The size and grandeur of one’s house, said the story, depended on family wealth. To the naked eye, the story was descriptive, not judgmental. But the bias and sensitivity reviewers preferred to eliminate it, claiming that references to wealth and class distinctions had an “elitist” tone. The fact that these class distinctions were historically accurate was irrelevant to the reviewers. In the world that they wanted children to read about, class distinctions did not exist, not now and not in the past, either. (13)

Turning a blind eye to issues we find taboo—like race, sexuality, or disabilities—does our children no favors. This recent report in Newsweek explains not only how children innately look for differences, but also how in a study meant to increase cultural sensitivity, parents couldn’t speak to their children about race at all for fear of appearing racist.

Ravitch goes on to argue how the efforts to be completely culturally sensitive are dumbing down what students learn:

We must recognize that the censorship that is now so widespread in education represents a systemic breakdown of our ability to educate the next generation and to transmit to them a full and open range of ideas about important issues in the world. By avoiding controversy, we teach them to avoid dealing with reality. By expurgating literature, we teach them that words are meaningless and fungible. (165)

By censoring our speech and our literature, we’re losing out on the variety and colorfulness of life. We’re dulling the sharpness of language, and thereby clouding our view of reality. Yes, sometimes life’s ugly and heartless. But it’s better to see it and discuss it openly than to cast a blanket of euphemisms over it so we needn’t see it.

I think Ravitch says it beautifully: “Great literature does not comfort us; it does not make us feel better about ourselves. … It shakes us up; it makes us think. Sometimes it makes us cry.” (164)

So what are your thoughts on political correctness and euphemisms? Do they really help anyone? And what are you doing to celebrate Banned Books Week? I, for one, am reading some Kurt Vonnegut and posting this blog.

Consulted works (in case you’re looking for more info):

Andrews, Edna. “Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming.” American Speech, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Winter 1996): 389-404.

Ravitch, Diane. The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

Taylor, Sharon Henderson. “Terms for Low Intelligence.” American Speech, Vol. 49, No. ¾ (Autumn – Winter, 1974): 197-207.

Van Boven, Leaf. “Pluralistic Ignorance and Political Correctness: The Case of Affirmative Action.” Political Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June, 2000): 267-276.

Written by Nathanael Green

September 30, 2009 at 8:19 pm

18 Responses

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  1. Nate,

    Wonderful post that digs deeper than the typical anti-PC rants we usually see and gets down to the science of language and human nature. Great job, it was a pleasure to read.

    While some of PC’s advocates have good intentions (I doubt ALL of them do), they failed to think this thing through logically. As you so aptly point out, words are merely expressions of ideas or concepts. They’re like labels. By slapping a Diet Coke sticker on a can of Coke, you’re not changing the soda inside.

    Brian O'Rourke

    October 1, 2009 at 8:21 am

    • Brian,

      Thanks for the comments. I really like your Diet Coke metaphor!

      And I agree. I do think most people who support political correctness have good intentions. I just think that much of the effort is just in trying to seem sensitive to our peers, which is actually making us unable to deal with the real issues of racism, sexism, and just general ignorance. And hiding all these issues from our children and ourselves doesn’t make them go away.

      Nathanael Green

      October 1, 2009 at 9:09 am

  2. Very interesting post, Nate. I heard a story on NPR (not this week though, so it wasn’t tied to the banned books/censorship issue directly) about a man who is on a quest to eradicate the word “retarded” from general (or more accurately, hurtful) use because he now has a child with Down Syndrome. It was interesting because he himself admitted that not only had he previously used the term, but that he once, in a fit of road rage, yelled it out in the car, only to look back and see his developmentally disabled child in the car seat behind him.

    The story was interesting for a few reasons – one, because they had an “expert” on also, discussing how terminology falls out of favor and turns from descriptive to insulting. In addition, I happened to catch the recap the next day, where the radio show plays some of the feedback messages that were left. The callers’ opinions ranged from “we should get rid of any insulting words in the language” to “people will only find different words to express what they mean” to “it doesn’t make sense to cherry-pick out a single term and accept that the n-word will be left in use.”

    I had not thought about how limiting language hinders education. Very, very interesting.


    October 4, 2009 at 7:11 am

    • Jenna,

      I’m sorry I missed that piece on NPR. I’ll have to look to see if they have it archived on the website.

      I’m no psychologist, but I’m very curious about the role of insults in language. Even beyond the role of language and the euphemism treadmill, it makes me wonder how and why people develop insults. Could insults be a healthy part of our lives, as long as they’re not applied hurtfully? And it seems that a lot of insults are perfectly accepted within certain groups, but unacceptable by people beyond that group – how would eliminating all insults affect that interaction?

      Also, insults are often used for humor. In one of the articles I quoted in the post, Taylor writes:

      It is not difficult to understand why terms for low intelligence make such satisfactory invectives: western man values intelligence so highly that to be accused of stupidity is an insult indeed. The amusement perhaps arises from a combination of anxiety and relieft, which has often been suggested as the main ingredient of humor–anxiety about one’s own intelligence when one is confronted with a mental deficiency in others, and relief because one has the assurance of feeling more intelligent by comparison.

      So if humor in essential to us, then perhaps so are insults?

      Nathanael Green

      October 6, 2009 at 8:35 am

  3. An excellent post, Nate. It puts into words things we notice about language without really formulating it. You can call a class “special ed.” all you like for instance, but it’s not going to make the kids in that class feel more special.

    However, I do wonder if the banning of certain words from polite society–I’m thinking of racial epithets in particular, but not these alone–isn’t at least some sort of improvement. It doesn’t in itself make people less racist, of course. But there can be an element of consciousness raising even in contemplating using a word that society forbids. When people use the N word now, for instance, it must be deliberate, not just in ignorance.

    And there has to be some value in people not having to hear pejoratives addressed to them all the live long day. Knowing people have ugly thoughts about you and having to hear them expressed are two different things.


    October 6, 2009 at 11:34 am

  4. Hello, I am a student working on how euphemisms (specifically in a policy making context is bad) for a research paper and I was wondering if I you could tell me about you qualifications for writing this so I could cite you in my paper. If you don’t then I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction in terms of finding other authors that speak about this subject. Thanks in advance.


    October 19, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    • Hi, Chris.

      Thanks for stopping by. I sent you a private email hoping to give you some more in-depth information about what you’re looking for. Hope it helps!

      Nathanael Green

      October 20, 2009 at 9:32 am

  5. Hello, I´d like to ask you the same as Chris. I´am working on batchelor thesis about euphemisms and trying to gather as much material as possible, so, if it won´t disturb you, I´d be very happy to read something more.


    February 5, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    • Hi, Martina,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog! I’m always excited to see a new face here.

      As for further reading about euphemisms, I’d first recommend looking for some of the sources I listed in this post (you’ll see them listed at the bottom). Also, I referenced only one article by Steven Pinker, but he’s got a number of books that might be valuable, though none seem to focus specifically on euphemisms. You might also find other sources based on a general search for linguists’ texts.

      Another book you might consider if you can find it is Euphemism and Dysphemism by Allan and Burridge. It sounds like it’d be right up your alley, though I can’t promise anything because I don’t have it … yet.

      Is this helpful at all? I hope so, and if there’s any other questions or anything I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask. I’d be very interested to hear how your thesis turns out and any interesting information you uncover in your research.


      Nathanael Green

      February 7, 2010 at 10:48 am

  6. Ohk, so i’m about a year behind, but still.

    I agree with Brian, this is a very intriguing look at political correctness, done in depth. Well done sir

    I stumbled across this article randomly while researching on an upcoming debate, about political correctness limiting free speech. i think you’ve highlighted some crucial points, that haven’t made the public domain of discussion, at least not in my country.

    I’ve since then gone on to some of your other articles, safe to say, i’l be checking back regularly.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Karan Malhotra

    August 31, 2010 at 11:56 am

    • Karan,

      Thanks for stopping by! I hope that you found what you needed and that your debate went well.

      Of course, when you say that some of these things haven’t made it to the public in your country, I’m curious to hear where you’re from and if there are any linguistic/language related things peculiar to your country that you might like to share?


      Nathanael Green

      November 12, 2010 at 4:03 pm

  7. I think politically correct means polite, not overly sensitive to issues that others may not even have. If the blind guy refers to himself as blind, it’s probably not a problem.

    I remember once taking about an hour long car trip with a good friend of mine and a couple of her friends I had never met in high school. The driver spent the entire trip searching for rap and apologizing for not being able to find any. No matter how many times I said “I listen to all types of music, and I’m not much of a rap fan” for at least half of this trip he searched the radio for rap.

    He was trying so hard to accommodate a need he assumed I had for rap music that he was being much more offensive that I hope he meant to be. I don’t know how the exactly sinks up with being PC I should really go to bed lol but it reminded me of people bending over backwards to be PC and in the process completely missing the boat. Treat people with respect, and definitely treat people the way they specifically asked to be treated.

    As a young black woman I feel this way about the term African American. Maybe in another time it seemed dignified but to me it’s always seemed ridiculous. White people aren’t referred to as Irish American, or French American your just White, I’m just Black.

    Charlita Huffman

    June 3, 2012 at 2:02 am

  8. Definitely enjoy what you’ve got here, glad you’re getting it around and what you have
    to say. Your post was splendidly balanced between amusing and intelligent.
    I am inspired to trade ideas and insight with you. Your website is undoubtedly one of the better blogs out there right now.

  9. Greetengs from Austria Nathaniel!

    Glad to see that someone is dealing with this type of linguistic manipulation.
    I am working on a thesis dealing with political euphemisms used by American presidents. Is there any source that could perhaps help me in my research, since i’m planning to do a linguistics corpus analysis. Thank you.



    June 4, 2013 at 11:46 am

    • Danijel,

      I’d recommend checking out some of the sources I cited at the bottom of the post first. Then it might help to look for books from a few prominent linguists like Stephen Pinker or Guy Deutscher. Their books are interesting at the least, and hopefully will offer some additional help for you.

      I hope everything goes well – viel Glück!

      Nathanael Green

      June 10, 2013 at 8:19 am

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