Euphemism Treadmill

It’s said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is especially true in the context of words and the meanings they convey. Words convey our thoughts. However, very often our thoughts also influence our words and expressions. Euphemism is a great example of how thoughts influence our choice of words. This leads to the so-called euphemism treadmill. On a treadmill, we seem to be making progress as we keep walking but we are indeed staying at the same place without making an inch of progress. So too, words & expressions describing people or events may change without altering the underlying reality.

Here are a few examples:

Last week I attended a conference in Delhi……No, sorry, it was a conclave. Isn’t it something special? One may wonder how a conclave differs from a conference. Conclave, according to dictionary, is a private meeting of a limited number of  people of similar backgrounds. I have attended seminars, workshops, conferences and now a conclave too. I do not see any big difference in any of them. They are all mainly meant for networking besides having a nice time with special lunches and so on. It helps to rejuvenate or recharge yourself as you get away from your daily grind. If conference, conclave, meeting, seminar or workshop mean the same  why do we have so many words? I guess it’s a human tendency to keep inventing new names for the same activity to differentiate oneself from others or other groups.

Our obsession with words and the concepts they convey gets too ridiculous at times. Take, for instance, the word toilet. It became a bathroom to start with, then turned into a wash room and finally a rest room. The expression rest room is even more ridiculous since it’s the last place one would think of for rest or relaxation! It’s our desire to appear sophisticated that makes us come up with an euphemism. But soon the new word gets tainted by what it refers to. Hence the search for yet another euphemism to replace the old one continues. This is an endless process with no net progress.

To take another example, a handicapped person became a disabled person and since this was also not acceptable, it changed to ‘ differently-abled’. This is perhaps well-intentioned. However, I wonder whether it has made any difference to our attitude to the disabled.

Look at the renaming spree of streets by obsessive politicians. It’s laughable. In Chennai, long time back, the government of the day decided to change the names of streets which had caste connotations. For instance, Dr Ranga Chary Road became Dr Ranga Road. But what about Dr Nair Road? Logically, it should become Dr Road, right? Well, mercifully it did not happen and the original name was retained. But I believe Brahmin Street was renamed as Street. I wonder if  it’s a fact. All the efforts at renaming streets has not made any difference to the caste realities and the associated politics.

What was a slum at one time turned into a ghetto which in turn became a more respectable Inner City. Has the reality of people living under subhuman conditions changed? No chance.

A negro has turned into Black American as if to bring parity with white American status. But soon this also became offensive and today they are referred to as African-Americans.

Another euphemism which falls in the same category is the acronym CRY. Originally, the acronym meant Child Rehabilitation & You. It was renamed aptly as Child Rights & You to reflect the sacred rights enshrined in our Constitution.

Politicians, the world over, use euphemisms, to exploit the emotions & sentiments of gullible masses. We are all familiar with George Bush’s infamous descriptions of Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of arms as Weapons of Mass Destruction. Using just one euphemism over and over, he got himself the moral authority to invade Iraq.

In India, as the word Hindutva got tainted, the Hindutva brigade now call themselves nationalists or patriots.

Communism became socialism and then democratic socialism for more respectability. Capitalism, likewise,  became Capitalism with a human face, whatever that meant. This is a clever jargon from Capitalists to give an impression that they are not cornering wealth and exploiting the poor.

Hitler’s genocide of the Jews got a respectable name – Ethnic Cleansing.

Military jargon also keeps changing to dilute truth. For instance what is Friendly fire? What’s so friendly about firing? This expression is used when you want to convey the news of a soldier being killed by his own men. Collateral damage is a nice expression to say that a lot of innocent civilians died when a military action was undertaken.

Is this euphemism Treadmill leading to real change in our cultural & moral attitudes? No chance. It’s a form of self-deception, as evolutionary psychologists say. That’s why the treadmill metaphor is used. On a treadmill, we keep walking briskly without going anywhere.




Published in: on July 22, 2017 at 11:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Power of Words

Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher of 6th century BC,  was once asked what he would do on priority if he were to become the ruler of the empire. He gave a reply which baffled everyone. He said: I’ll rectify the names for things.

At first sight, this sounded as trivial as our politicians renaming cities and street names. I understood the significance of this statement when I read a book by Steven Poole titled ‘Unspeak – words are weapons’. This book gives a great insight into how we get biased conditioned by words used by politicians and Multinational businessmen. Here are a few interesting examples of the power of words over us:

All of us have heard of Global warming. This word coined by scientists caused a lot of inconvenience to politicians and businessmen with vested interests in huge oil businesses. This lobby managed to rephrase the problem with a less intimidating expression ‘Climate change’. This successful rewording of the challenge justified virtual inaction on mitigation of global warming by reducing oil consumption.

Consider another controversy on Genetically engineered agricultural produce. American Multinational companies like Monsanto have a lot at stake in these dubious technologies with unproven safety. Inspired by these powerful lobbies, politicians managed to neutralize the negative connotation of the word ‘genetically engineered food’ using innocuous descriptions for these foods. Genetically engineered food was changed to a neutral description ‘genetically modified’ in the first instance which later became to a more desirable ‘Biotechnology foods’. The first change gave an impression to the layman that only a slight harmless tinkering was done while the second change seemed to imply even a beneficial effect of such foods.

In a similar fashion, if the arguments legalizing abolition were termed Pro-choice, the arguments against were termed Pro-life. It’s very easy to confuse issues for the layman by clever usage of words. For instance how can anybody be against life?

In the recent past the dirty words ‘Genocide’ was replaced by a more moralistic expression  ‘ethnic cleaning’. ‘War on terror’ was replaced by ‘Global struggle against violent extremism’. War on something appears unilateral and expresses one’s aggressiveness whereas the word ‘struggle’ has a sense of built-in righteousness.

In India we have politicians using terms like War on poverty, war on corruption, war on black marketing etc – what do they mean? Nothing much, if you look at them closely. By declaring war on inanimate objects, one loses focus on the real offenders. That is why we see so many criminals getting away without punishment. And Governments are fighting these wars indefinitely for over 4 decades! These are open-ended wars which we continue fighting without punishing the corrupt people, black marketeers or politicians.

Consider further the words like ‘Executive’, ‘Chief executive’, ‘Captains of industries’. All these are words of business and commerce  borrowed from the war industry . The use of the expression ‘Human resources’ for human beings meant that a set of men could be looked upon as any other resource like a machine and so can be ‘fired’. Likewise the term ‘launching a product’ gives one images of a rocket launch.  In other words, one is encouraged to look upon business as a warfare, no holds barred.

So, the great Chinese philosopher is right, after all, in saying that he would give priority to rectification of names for things. To quote the great philosopher: When the names for things are incorrect, speech does not sound reasonable; when speech doesn’t sound reasonable,things are not done properly; when things are not done properly, structure of the society is harmed; when the structure of  society is harmed, punishments do not fit crimes; and when punishments do not fit crimes, people do not know what to do.  The thing about the gentleman is that he is anything but casual where speech is concerned.”  What a great insight!


Published in: on October 12, 2014 at 10:39 am  Comments (2)  
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