Euphemisms are like underwear: best changed frequently. What work are they doing in our language and why do they expire?

Excerpt from an Aeon essay by John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University. His latest book is The Language Hoax (2014).

What we would today call cash assistance for the differently abled could in a different era permissibly have been called welfare for cripples. The terms welfare and crippledsound somewhere between loaded and abusive today, and yet once were considered civil by educated, sensitive people. There actually was an organisation called the International Society for the Welfare of Cripples established in 1922.

However, in 1960 it was retitled the International Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled. As appropriate as that seems from our vantage point, it demonstrated a general tendency towards which we often roll our eyes. ‘Okay, what are we supposed to call it now?’ we sometimes think, as terms considered proper for a group or phenomenon seem to change every generation or so. The implication is that we find this rolling terminology a bit much – why can’t the names of things just stay put? On disabled, for example, what was wrong with handicapped, and why must we now move on to differently abled? Isn’t all of this kind of like Puff Daddy to P Diddy?

No, actually. What the cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker has artfully termed ‘the euphemism treadmill’ is not a tic or a stunt. It is an inevitable and, more to the point, healthy process, necessary in view of the eternal gulf between language and opinion. We think of euphemisms as one-time events, where one prissily coins a way of saying something that detracts from something unpleasant about it. That serves perfectly well as a definition of what euphemism is, but misses the point that euphemism tends to require regular renewal. This is because thought changes more slowly than we can change the words for it, and has a way of catching up with our new coinages. Since that is likely eternal, we must accept that we’ll change our terms just like we change our underwear, as a part of linguistic life in a civilised society.

Get the complete essay on AEON