Flight of the Euphemism

by John MacBeath Watkins

Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structuralism, believed that every language creates its own reality.  Language isn't just the sound of words, it's the structure of meaning that underlies the words, the signs that the words signify.  It's not just a way to communicate, it's a web of meaning that enables us to think.

So what if you want to change the way people think?

One of the first books on anthropology I read was written in the early 1930s and referred to people with large heads and underdeveloped mental faculties as "macrocephalic idiots."  It was a technical term, but it drew to it (and embodied within it) the attitudes people held at the time toward mental disabilities.  It was a little more technical than the term "low-grade moron" which was also applied to this group, in that it referred to a specific disability.

Suppose you wanted to change the way people thought about the mentally disabled, what would you do?  Well, you'd probably notice the contempt with which people said the words with which they referred to these people, and decide to change the words.  Some people referred to these kids as 'backward.'  A more technical and therefore less obviously judgmental term would be 'retarded.'  So the new word was chosen to take the place of 'low-grade moron.'

But the sound only represents the meaning.  In time, much of the old meaning attached to the new word.  Perhaps a little progress was made, a little change in attitude, but soon 'retarded' became an insult.  So a new word was chosen, 'developmentally disabled.'  This meant the child did not develop as quickly as its cohorts.  In fact, the plane meaning of the term  is 'backward' or if you prefer the more Latin term, 'retarded.'

Each time, the new sign acquires at least most of the meaning of what the old sign signified.  Still, I can't fault the effort to change the underlying meaning.  It can be done, but it isn't easy.

Once, in graduate school, I made a powerless enemy.  A friend of one of my house mates told me she had struggled mightily to change the name of the office for helping disabled students to the 'challenge office.'  She wondered what I thought of that.  I argued that what I thought made very little difference, and she was the real expert on the matter, but she insisted that I render judgment.

So I told her quite honestly that I thought it would make very little difference to the meaning of the office if she changed the name.  I did not explain de Saussure's theories about language, because I'd already said enough that she was yelling at my house mate.  She had, after all, insisted that I render judgment, so she chose to strike out at a convenient target other than myself.

Later in my life, cynic that I am, I thought that if a blind man is differently abled -- able to not see!  Perhaps my unfaithful lover was 'differently faithful' -- faithful not to be...

Something like this (moron/backward/retarded/developmentally disabled)  transference of prejudice to new terms has happened with the term for people descended from sub-Sahraran African ancestors.  There was a Portuguese word, negro, which means black, which came to be applied to them when the Brazilian slave trade was particularly important.  There was a euphemism for negro, which was 'colored,' as if the specific color dare not speak its name.  (Could it be golden?  Purple? Puce or chartreuse?  The color of a ripe red potato or a fresh green tomato?  Striped like that special tulip that would make a Dutchman swoon?  Pale against a midnight sky, like a sliver of a silver new moon?)

There were two common insults, black and nigger.  I thought the most ingenious effort to deal with the stigma attached to being African-American was the 'black is beautiful' idea.  This tackled the underlying problem of changing the meaning without the usual flight to a new euphemism.

Nigger has become one of the few non-sexual obscenities in the American lexicon.  I'm fine with that.  Some complain that blacks continue to use it, but for a black to use it is transparently ironic.  For a white to use it, there is no presumption that the use is ironic.

I am, of course, always fascinated by language.  A few years back, a Washington, D.C. official lost his job for using the word 'niggardly,' which those listening thought was a racial slur, although it's based on an old Norse word that was invented before the Norse were in contact with sub-Saharan Africans.  The mayor eventually hired his aide back, presumably after a little quiet time with his Oxford English Dictionary.

A friend worked at a gas station with a Cajun woman who had a '100% Coonass' bumper sticker.  The woman was accused of racism because of the bumper sticker, even though it referred to her own ethnicity.  A coonass, or Cajun, is a person of French descent, whose ancestors were part of the Arcadian colony in what is now Nova Scotia.  The French king didn't like them, because they would pledge no allegiance to him, and the English, when they conquered Canada, didn't trust them because they wouldn't pledge allegiance to the English king either.  They shipped most of them to the other big French colony of the time, the Louisiana territory.

This is the problem with the sign and the signified.  With a little ignorance, the sign can be mistaken for another signified. Sometimes these communication accidents reveal how the structure works. In both cases, people used the proper sign to send the signal they wanted to send, but people ignorant of the sign (and perhaps even of the meaning signed) assigned meanings of words that sounded close to the one used.  It's as if they were part of a different reality.

But the more usual problem is the flight of the euphemism, where new words try to flit to new meanings, but keep settling on the old one.  The structure of language, and the structure of thought, are not entirely inflexible, but they are resilient.  They bend, they don't break, and they eventually change shape to accommodate the pressures of a changing society.