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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