Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Steven Pinker: The Game Of The Name and the Euphemism Treadmill


Can't believe I've never seen this before.

It's not some great achievement or anything, but I realized Pinker's point about euphemisms on my own (so far as I know...): give a bad or unpopular thing a new, euphemistic name, and that name will itself, in the fullness of time, take on the bad or unpopular connotations.

There is, for example, probably no term you can assign to physical and mental disability that will not eventually be used as a schoolyard taunt. There is, for example, nothing inherently wrong with the word 'retarded.' It's pretty damn clinical-sounding when you think about it. But, well, here we are.

Of note:
The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name. 
People learn a word by witnessing other people using it, so when they use a word, they provide a history of their reading and listening. Using the latest term for a minority often shows not sensitivity but subscribing to the right magazines or going to the right cocktail parties.
Shifts in terms have an unfortunate side effect. Many people who don't have a drop of malice or prejudice but happen to be older or distant from university, media and government spheres find themselves tainted as bigots for innocently using passe terms such as "Oriental" or "crippled."
Arbiters of the changing linguistic fashions must ask themselves whether this stigmatization is really what they set out to accomplish.
Well...the thing is, it is what many of them set out to accomplish. The relevant people have attitudes and goals distributed along a spectrum, from genuine, reasonable concern on the one end to holier-than-thou language totalitarianism on the other. This has all gotten worse since Pinker wrote the piece 20 years ago. But the basic sentiments are the same. The language police of the lefty-left really, really, really like telling people how to talk. And they've managed to encourage norms that make using even last week's terminology a cardinal sin. Their obsession with linguistic fads--established largely by their own fiat--is a downright sickness, a fetishization of the shibboleths of the moment.

Obviously some such linguistic suggestions are fine. But many such changes are foolish and/or inaccurate and/or little more than an attempt to bully people to conform. Nobody has an obligation to take those terminological prescriptions seriously.

And, incidentally: stop trying to make 'people of color' happen.

It's not going to happen...

Largely because it's a silly, stilted construction, but largely because it's basically equivalent to 'colored people.'

When this stuff comes full circle, I consider myself justified in getting off.

But, anyway, finally and most importantly:

words are not thoughts. Despite the appeal of the theory that language determines thought, no cognitive scientist believes it.
 People coin new words, grapple for le mot juste, translate from other languages and ridicule or defend PC terms.None of this would be possible if the ideas expressed by words were identical to the words themselves. 
This should alleviate anxiety on both sides, reminding us that we are talking about style manuals, not brain programming.
tl;dr: Sapir-Whorf: still wrong.


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