Euphemism treadmills and “Communication finds a way”
The word “stupid” used to more or less be a medical term. In some people’s living memory the word “retarded” was also a medical term, before it became the word that I and other kids used to make fun of each other in elementary school. A while back Stephen Pinker coined the phase “the euphemism treadmill” to point at the process of emotionally charged language getting replaced with more “neutral” language, and in time the new “neutral” language gaining the same emotional charge as the old language. A similar thing often happens over time for the language used to refer to different racial and ethnic groups. Think “negro” -> “black” -> “african american” -> “person of color”.
I mostly hear the term “euphemism treadmill” used to talk about something that happens to slurs. C. S. Lewis noted a more general version of this process in his essay, “The Death of Words”1:
The truth is not simply that words originally innocent tend to acquire a bad sense. The vocabulary of flattery and insult is continually enlarged at the expense of the vocabulary of definition. As old horses go to the knacker’s yard, or old ships to the breakers, so words in their last decay go to swell the enormous list of synonyms for good and bad. And as long as most people are more anxious to express their likes and dislikes than to describe facts, this must remain a universal truth about language.
Lewis and I might argue about the finer points in his essay, so I’m going to reformulate is observation into my own version I can stand behind:
People will use the language they have available to express what they care about expressing2, regardless of the original intent behind the language.
If people want to insult each other, words will become insults. If people want to say things are good and bad, words will become synonyms for good and bad. If people want weapons, words will get weaponized.
Underlying this “law” is a slightly more nuanced version of “meaning is use”. Communication has a lot of built in redundancies, and the context (verbal, extra-verbal, and non-verbal) surrounding any individual word informs the intended meaning of the word in addition to and separate from the meaning you might derive from the word in isolation. If enough people use a non-insulting word in an “insult slot” in their speech, eventually the underlying shared interpretive equilibrium will shift such that that word can be received as an insult without needing corroborating support from the surrounding context.
This essay can be found in “On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature”↩︎
The intersection of what they care about expressing and what they implicitly asses they are allowed to express.↩︎