Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 03:03
A euphemism is defined as a non-harmful phrase or word used to substitute another word or phrase that is seen as, in some way, unpleasant. These words and phrases, though created with the best possible intentions, are slowly causing the English language to decay.
For example, penitentiaries used to be led by a warden. In an effort to seem politically correct, penitentiaries, prisons and jails have been renamed to the, allegedly less controversial, title of “correctional facility” or “detention facility.” The wardens, as the leaders, are now referred to as the “correctional facility supervisor” or “detention facility supervisor.” With these new euphemisms, the words “penitentiary” and “warden,” which had no other use besides describing an actual prison or its leader, have been replaced. These old words are slowly disappearing from the English language, being replaced by softer phrases. The allegedly harsh words have been written out of the language, for fear of being offensive. It is one thing to replace an allegedly offensive or harsh word with another word meaning the same thing, but these euphemisms are simply removing the words from our lexicons and replacing them with presumably innocuous phrases.
It is true that the English language, specifically in the United States, differs greatly from some other languages in that, here in the United States, the government does not directly control the words; their creation is simply spontaneous. However, the language is controlled by the oligarchy of the nation, essentially the top one percent who own companies which may write the dictionaries.
There are hundreds of other examples of this phenomenon, many of which are highlighted in a famous George Carlin comedy routine, representing a quite troubling phenomenon. In George Orwell’s famous book 1984, depicting a totalitarian, dystopian future in the British Isles, the English language has been abandoned in favor of a new tongue, known as “Newspeak.” In Newspeak, the number of words was greatly diminished to a point where concepts disliked by the rulers were removed from the language. The idea was that if you removed the words for negative occurrences or actions, the actual occurrences or actions somehow disappear. Similarly, even though the rough words of penitentiary and warden have been removed, the roughness and harshness of prisons still remain. For, even though a “correctional facility” sounds nicer than a “prison,” it isn’t. An inmate at Guantanamo Bay could be described as undergoing “enhanced interrogation” rather than torture, but he is still being tortured. If a woman is described as “sexually assaulted,” she has still been raped, even though many states, including my home of Texas, will use the former term in its penal code.
In this crusade for euphemisms, the most egregious assault at the integrity of our language is in the sphere of disabled people, with an example known as a “people-first language.” In these examples, euphemistic advocates have argued that instead of labeling a disabled individual with a preceding adjective, which has been allegedly perceived as dehumanizing, any conditions should come after the acknowledgement of the person’s humanity. For example, instead of “blind person,” it would be “person with visual impairment.” Such a concept is wrong for two reasons. First, the syntax of the English language places adjectives before nouns, as a general rule. Thus, grammar rules could become the second casualty in euphemism’s crusade. Second, most organizations representing the interests of different disabled people reject this concept of people-first language, explaining it is not necessary. In 1993, for example, the American National Federation for the Blind condemned the concept at their national conference, explaining that they strongly disagreed with the use of such euphemisms. Additionally, organizations representing the deaf community have strongly condemned this concept. Notable autistic individuals, including a man named Jim Sinclair who wrote a strongly worded 2011 New York Times op-ed on the topic, have also voiced disapproval of such a concept. Again, there remains an idea that, as George Carlin put in his famous monologue on the subject, that “if you change the name of the condition, somehow you will change the condition.” Referring to the blind as “persons with visual impairment” may seem to mitigate the severity of the condition, but it does not.
It is a common theme in the media to say the uneducated youth, or other delinquent urbanites, are polluting or helping to dismantle the English language through the use of slang or neologisms. However, throughout much of history, terms first coined as slang quickly become accepted nomenclature. It is the well-to-do, educated elite who are dismantling the language, through their use of euphemisms that mitigate the diversity of the vocabulary, providing needless exceptions to grammatical syntax rules.