Euphemisms and Political correctness - the lies we use to shun reality
“You're not allowed to call them dinosaurs anymore, it's speciesist. You have to call them pre-petroleum persons.” (Pratchett, 1996)
Even the simplest of tools, when abused, produce grave results. Euphemism is not a simple tool; it is one of the most powerful weapons in the linguistic arsenal. Political correctness, in linguistic terms, is a subset of euphemism. The most vocal proponents of political correctness purport that words affect thoughts. They argue that when the offensive words are suppressed, the thought process associated with those words will wither out from consciousness, though the current linguistic research does not support such claims. In most cases, the intent of not offending others is benign, but like any tool, it can also be abused by malevolent agencies to dissemble and suppress important words out of a discussion for their benefits in the name of political correctness and euphemisms. This shifts the focus from the real issue to the words used to express the issue. In few contexts, the grave outcome outweighs the positive consequences brought in by euphemisms.
Please note that in this paper the word ‘Political Correctness’ is used in abbreviated from PC. Also as PC is a subset of euphemism, in multiple contexts the argument on euphemism also applies to PC, so they are denoted as Euphemism/PC. However, the arguments on PC does not necessarily extend to euphemism, so they are not clubbed in those contexts.
Euphemism and Political Correctness
Euphemism is defined by OED as “A mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing” (euphemism, 2016). It is so ubiquitous that Rawson (1981) points “they are embedded so deeply in our language that few of us, even those who pride themselves on being plainspoken, ever get through a day without using them”. (p. 1). They are commonly used to conceal the things that people fear the most and create a safe space for them from the vile offensive words, which reminds them of the naked reality that we are no better than any other animal we coexist with. Rawson (1981) further remarks that “The euphemism stands for "something else," and everyone pretends that the "something else" doesn't exist. It is the essentially duplicitous nature of euphemisms that makes them so attractive to those people and institutions who have something to hide, who don't want to say what they are thinking, and who find it convenient to lie about what they are doing.” (p. 3). This is the dark side of euphemism.
Political correctness is a child of euphemism which is defined by OED as “The avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against” (political correctness, 2016). The proponents of PC are mostly identified as vocal online communities in social media. They try to create safe spaces in social media for the victims so that they are safe from being offended, instead of teaching the offenders why they should not provoke people. Their intention is virtuous, but it engenders unforeseen negative effects. Creation of these linguistic safe spaces is similar to the “Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses” found in Douglas Adams’ (1980) novel, which turns completely black when the wearer is in danger thus preventing them from seeing anything that might alarm them. This unintentional kind act could damage the victims more as they disconnect from the harsh reality of the world.
Linguistic definition of Euphemisms
Linguistically, euphemism/PC and its offensive counterpart are classified as “synonyms”. Synonymy is described as “The lexical relation which parallels identity in the membership of two classes” (Cruse, 1987). The degree of synonymy varies between two words. In the case of euphemism/PC and its counterpart, they are similar in connotation but varies in denotation. Denotation is the literal sense of the word, whereas connotation is the socio-cultural association of meaning with that word (Hall, 2007). For example, the phrase “to kick a bucket” means by denotation to literally to “kick a pail”, while connotatively by association we know that it means “to die”. Note that the words “bucket” and “pail” are close synonyms which clear the connotative meaning behind the original phrase. The power of euphemism/PC lies in the fact that they can change the valence of the word and its associated meaning. For example, the word “neutralize” is commonly used by the military to denote “murder”. The negativity associated with “murder” is removed when the word “neutralize” is used in the same context.
Linguistic Determinism and Linguistic Relativity
The proponents of euphemism/PC buttress their argument with the theory of linguistic determinism. Linguistic determinism is a strong version of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity. Linguistic determinism is described as “a concept taken from the narrow field of analytic philosophy and postulates that human language limits and determines human thought patterns and knowledge” (Psychology glossary, 2016). The theory claims that language creates a filter through which the speaker’s reality is defined. Extending this, few people believe that by banning or modifying words they can somehow suppress or skew reality.
Criticism on Linguistic determinism and Linguistic Relativity
Steven Pinker (1989) criticizes the theory of linguistic determinism to be absurd. He says that “Whorf was surely wrong when he said that one’s language determines how one conceptualizes reality in general. But he was probably correct in a much weaker sense: one’s language does determine how one must conceptualize reality when one has to talk about it” (p. 424). Slobin (1996) claims that speakers organize their thought to adapt to the language’s grammatical structure as and when they speak. Pinker (1989) stresses Slobin’s argument by theorizing that “it seems unlikely that the Dutch conceive of the acts of saying or suggesting differently from us, except at the moment that they have to express them in words” (p. 422). From this, it is visible that the language and words used do not affect a person’s whole thought process but just the way they want to talk about stuff. They can potentially convert their thought constrained by words to explain it differently without affecting their underlying thought.
The major problem occurs when people believe, as common sense dictates, that the attitude of a person closely relates to one’s behavior. In this context, the one’s belief dictates the words one uses. Contrary to common sense, the studies in social and cognitive psychology concludes that attitudes are relatively poor predictors of behavior. In most cases, attitude does not guide actions. (Boundless, 2016) Extending this study to words used by a person and their belief system, it can be argued that the belief of a person (attitude) does not necessarily correspond to the words one chooses to use (behavior). If they correspond to one another, then humans would not have the ability to lie. Obviously, that is not true, which can be proved by interaction with the human community on any given day.
Politeness theory, put forward by Brown and Levinson (1987), explains that every competent adult member of a society has a ‘face’ or a public self-image. The ‘face’ consist of ‘negative face’ or the need to have freedom from imposition, and a ‘positive face’ or a need to have a positive consistent public image. Positive face is restated by them as ‘the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others” (Brown & Levinson, 1987). From this theory, it can be stated that most often euphemism/PC is used as a tool to save the positive face of the person. The intentionality of the speaker so as to not offend the hearer is the main purpose of euphemism/PC. From the earlier passages, it is clear that the mind of the speaker is not affected by choosing the word usage, except when he wants to convey the message. From the politeness theory, it is clear that the euphemism/PC affects the mind of the interpreter of the message. So, the speaker alters his message by using mild and inoffensive words to save his positive face. In addition to this use, the other dangerous use of euphemism/PC is to deceive the interpreter.
Dark Nature of Euphemism/PC
The use of euphemisms/PC is extensive in politics. George Orwell (1946) notes in his essay that “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification... People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them”. The hideousness of war is explained to public with euphemisms to take the terrorizing image out from it, not for benevolent reasons but to justify their horrifying actions.
One of the notorious euphemistic deception used by governments during war is the series of words to describe combat stress reaction. The combatants undergo an acute behavioral disorganization due to the trauma of battlefield. The initial term used to describe it during World War I was ‘shell shock’ or ‘war neurosis’. From then, this term has undergone changes after every war. During World War II it was called ‘battle fatigue’. During the next few wars, it changed to ‘operational fatigue’, ‘operational exhaustion’ and then to ‘Post Traumatic Stress disorder’. (Crocq, 2000). The shift to euphemism took the humanity out of the words. Especially the euphemism shift from ‘battle fatigue’ to ‘operational exhaustion’ skews the mental image from a war-torn human to an inoperative war machine.
Governments, institutions, and individuals use euphemisms/PC to dissemble the truth and shape reality differently with words. Climate change is a theory supported by 97% of the scientists to be true (NASA, 2016). The current politicians, who deny this theory, identify themselves as ‘Climate change skeptics’ and not as ‘Climate change deniers’. By this subtle shift in words, the politicians can put forwards themselves not as some deniers of a genuine issue, but as a skeptic, as if they have different research results. The use of euphemisms for equivocation is notoriously common, yet it requires special attention on the emphasized words to detect the fabrications.
Unlike the purposeful deception by institutions, few naïve vocal groups in social media and colleges try to oppress the words which they feel offensive. This creates problems when important topics could be hindered from discussion or the full impact of a discussion goes toothless without the appropriate words. A Harvard law school professor expressed her distress in the difficulties of teaching rape law. She mentions that students find the discussion on sexual violence to be traumatic and few individuals even request her to remove this topic from exams because they might not perform well due to distress the topic causes them. (Gersen, 2014). Future lawyers avoiding learning such topics and hiding in their safe spaces create more problems to the victims, because, in reality, this vile criminal act is still at large.
Another issue with euphemism/PC is that they are temporary. A word considered to be a euphemism for one generation becomes a close synonym of its offensive counterpart for the next generation. So, they tend to come out with new words as a euphemism to replace the previous generation’s euphemism. Rawson (1981) notes this as “Once people begin to shun a term, it usually is necessary to develop a new euphemism to replace the one that has failed. Then the second will become tainted and a third will appear” (p. 5). A long chain of euphemistic words, generation after generation, does not help to solve the real issue rather it hides them until someone brings it back to attention. One such horrible example is the transformation of the word used to denote an ethnic group as ‘negro’. It was modified to ‘black’, then as ‘colored’, then to ‘Afro-American’ and now to ‘African-American’. These long chains of modified words did not help them to mitigate the issues they face rather it just hid the real issues and taught them to get offended by these words. (Lerone Bennett, 1967). In a gist, euphemism/PC is just putting a fancy new plaster to bleeding knife wound.
Pinker notes that “Once a euphemism is pointed out, people are not so brainwashed that they have trouble understanding the deception” (Pinker, 1994). The political equivocation written in simple English replacing the euphemisms to the intended near synonyms will unmask the intended detestable deception. Banning words and discussion, by considering that linguistic determinism is true, should be discouraged. A study on the phonological forms of swear words and linguistic relativity reveals that the phonological forms of words impact on thinking by verbal conditioning. (Bowers & Pleydell-Pearce, 2011). Studies such as this must be conducted with a broader scope before promoting Linguistic relativity, and Linguistic determinism should be studied in depth and extended further before pushing it into everyday life. Forcing a theory without subjecting it to rigorous analysis is as bad as supplying an untested medication to public.
Languages are tools used to express thought. It is also used for communicating the thought to others. Euphemisms are linguistic tools which help to hide certain speech acts which save our positive face at the same time hopefully convey the intended meaning. It should be left at that or linguistic determinism must be studied in-depth before banishing words or replacing them to liberate the evils of society. While euphemism/PC helps us to be polite and to avoid certain discussions, it also deters discussions on important issues, and assist genuine problems to be hidden behind a veil of lies. The rational way is to unveil the doublespeak by putting emotions aside to discuss vital issues. The solution to the problem should take precedence over the words used to describe it. When the words used have a higher impact than the meaning it intends to convey, then discussions devolve into a pointless ramble. Anyway, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. (Shakespeare, 1595)
Adams, D. (1980). The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
Boundless. (2016). How Attitude Influences Behavior. Retrieved from Boundless: https://www.boundless.com/management/textbooks/boundless-management-textbook/organizational-behavior-5/drivers-of-behavior-44/how-attitude-influences-behavior-228-612/
Bowers, J. S., & Pleydell-Pearce, C. W. (2011). Swearing, Euphemisms, and Linguistic Relativity. PLoS ONE.
Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness - Some universals in language usage. Cambridge University Press.
Crocq, M.-A. (2000). From shell shock and war neurosis to posttraumatic stress disorder: a history of psychotraumatology. Retrieved from NCBI: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181586/
Cruse, D. A. (1987). Lexical Semantics. Cambridge.
, J. S. (2014). The trouble with teaching rape law. Retrieved from The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trouble-teaching-rape-law
Hall, S. (2007). This Means This, This Means That: A User's Guide to Semiotics. Laurence King Publishing.
Lerone Bennett, J. (1967). What's In a Name? Negro vs. Afro-American vs. Black. Ebony Magazine, pp. 46-48, 50-52, 54.
NASA. (2016). Scientific consensus: Earth's climate is warming. Retrieved from NASA: http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/
Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English Language.
Oxford English Dictionary. (2016). Retrieved from Oxford English Dictionary: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/euphemism
Pinker, S. (1989). Learnability and Cognition: The of Argument structure. The MIT Press.
Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. Penguin Books.
Pratchett, T. (1996). Johnny and the Bomb.
Psychology glossary. (2016). Retrieved from Alleydog: http://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.php?term=Linguistic%20Determinism
Rawson, H. (1981). A Dictionary of Euphemism and other Doubletalk. Crown Publishers.
Shakespeare, W. (1595). Romeo and Juliet.