The Shelf Life of Euphemisms

Breughel The Beggars

It’s just a matter of time before officially mandated euphemisms, words like handicapped, for instance, acquire the connotative stench of the word they were chosen to replace, in this case crippled.  The linguist Steven Pinker calls the phenomenon “Euphemism Treadmill.”

Back to ambulatory disabilities. In the Seventies, well-meaning advocates declared the word crippled cruel and decided the word handicapped was more humane. They insisted that handicapped replace crippled, airbrushing, as it were, an unpleasant sound associated with a sad state – withered limbs, club feet, braced legs, thick-souled shoes.1

When you picture a cripple, what do you see?

I see a ratty Victorian coat draped across the shoulders of a stooped Dickensian character with a cane.

Now close your eyes and picture a handicapped person.

For me, he or she is wheelchair bound.  However, unlike crippled, the word handicapped covers a much wider range of maladies; it’s not limited to problematic arms legs or or spines.  Elmer Fudd and Sylvester the Cat have speech handicaps, for example.

The word crippled is crisp, a trochee, the double p-sounds limping. It comes to us from two words of German origin, crypel and crēopel related to the word creep.

Handicapped is less specific, more metamorphic, having originated, not in the distant mists of Anglo-Saxon barbarity but in the 17th Century describing strange pastime called “hand in cap.”

Here’s the OED’s account:

Mid 17th century: from the phrase hand in cap; originally a pastime in which one person claimed an article belonging to another and offered something in exchange, any difference in value being decided by an umpire. All three deposited forfeit money in a cap; the two opponents showed their agreement or disagreement with the valuation by bringing out their hands either full or empty. If both were the same, the umpire took the forfeit money; if not it went to the person who accepted the valuation. The term handicap race was applied (late 18th century) to a horse race in which an umpire decided the weight to be carried by each horse, the owners showing acceptance or dissent in a similar way: hence in the late 19th century handicap came to mean the extra weight given to the superior horse.

Handicapped spread from racetracks to golf courses and enjoys in the arena of sport non-pejorative connotations. It suggests the possibility of success despite a disadvantage, yet it, too, has fallen out of favor. Disabled person is now preferred over handicapped.

Would you rather be crippled or handicapped or disabled? No doubt one day disabled too will fall out of favor for some new attempt to soften the sense of the situation.

This phenomenon of euphemisms falling out of favor has a long history.

Take these deposed onetime legitimate descriptors of levels mental incapability.

Idiot, imbecile, moron.

For example, the blog Medium provides this succinct explanation of what these no longer clinical terms once meant.

1910, the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Persons adopted three classifications of people we know today as intellectually disabled, as defined by a newly invented way to measure intelligence we now call the IQ test. “Morons” were the most intelligent — they had IQs between 50 and 70. “Imbeciles” with IQs between 25 and 50 were the second level. Those below 25 would remain “idiots.”

Of course, the problem with these terms is that people started insultingly applying them to non-imbeciles, non-idiots, non-morons, so I can see why changing them made some sense. For example, HR McMaster, Trump’s former national security advisor, called his boss “an idiot,” as had White House chief of staff John Kelly, according to the Washington Post. Ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron.” Although others have called Trump an imbecile – actress Sonam Kapoor, e.g., – I can’t find an example of one of his staff members employing the term. In addition, no one, to my knowledge, has called Trump “retarded,” (though Trump himself used that term to describe his former attorney general Jeff Sessions).

Maybe “mentally incapacitated” will survive. What an ineffective insult that term would make, a nerf insult, not suitable for a staccato attack during a road rage incident. “What the fuck you think you were doing, you fucking mentally incapacitated person, you?”
Although I would rather be handicapped than disabled, I’d prefer to be mentally incapacitated rather than imbecilic. I told my mother once after she chided me for using the word piss, that I’d bring in a jar of urine and a jar of piss, and if she could correctly label which was which, I’d never use the word piss ever again until the day I passed away or croaked.


[1]Yes, “air-brushing sounds” is indeed a mixed-metaphor. Cluck your tongues, you stepchildren of Freud!

The Considerable Talents of Danielle Howle

photo credit: Fleming Moore

 

In November of 2014, I published a post entitled South Carolina’s Musical Heritage where I imagined The Oxford American had chosen me to curate a cd of songs produced by natives of the Palmetto State.  I complained that a few of the songs in the Oxford Southern Music series were “a bit too archive-y” and that my cd would not suffer from that preciousness.  You could listen to my compilation without reaching for the fast forward button to skip some pocket-comb-and-tissue band from the 1930s inserted into the mix to establish the curator’s erudition.

Here’s what I came up with:

Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’  “Stay”

The Swinging Medallions’ “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love”

The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See”

Eartha Kitt’s “C’est Bon”

Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts “

James Brown’s “Doing It to Death”

The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby”

Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again”

The Brotherhood Gospel Singers’ “Mary, Don’t Cry”

The Reverend Gary Davis’s “Prodigal Sun”

Hootie and the Blowfish[1]“Only Want to Be with You”

Julius Cobb’s “Great Big Change in Me”

Uncle Walt’s Band’s “Gimme Some Skin”

Alphonse Mouzon’s “Funky Snakefoot”

Blue Dogs’ “Walter”

Danielle Howle’s “Oh Swear”

Well, last night, I finally got to meet the last name on that list – not last because least but last because youngest.  Danielle Howle is truly a treasure.  She’s blessed with incredible chops; a gift for melody; a soul capable of alchemizing suffering into poignant but not sentimental art; a sharp, dry wit that makes her stage banter funnier than most of the stand-up acts I’ve seen recently.  Oh, yeah, and charisma.  Obviously, you can’t learn charisma, you can’t will charisma, you can’t ask the Lord Almighty to grant thee charisma.  You either got it or you don’t.  And she gots it in containership loads.

See for yourself as she and keyboardist Alex Goyette playing at the Listening Room at Summerville’s Homegrown Brewhouse:

 

 

To say I’m a fan is obviously an understatement.  Check her out whenever you can,  Also, her opening act George Alan Fox and Jesse Pritchard were also  killer.

 

I-and-I backstage with Danielle Photo Credit: Fleming Moore

[1]Not a big fan, but it would be churlish not to include them.

Deepening Shades

 

The death of friends, or death

Of every brilliant eye

That made a catch in the breath –

Seem but the clouds of the sky

When the horizon fades;

Or a bird’s sleepy cry

Among the deepening shades.

Yeats, “The Tower”

 

Cast a cold eye,

On Life, on Death.

Horseman, pass by!

Yeats’s Epitaph

 

Because I’m retiring at the end of this year, I’m often asked if I’m “counting down the days.”

Actually, I’m not.  When this semester ends, I’ll be not teaching at Porter-Gaud for the rest of my life.  Why rush that?

Instead, I’m relishing – or at least trying to relish – the last opportunity of teaching specific content: poems I love, vocabulary lessons I know by heart, characters who are more real to me than many of my acquaintances. For example, my main man from Heart of Darkness Charlie Marlow and I will part company in May. Every spring for thirty years he and I have hung out for two weeks or so. I’ll miss the sound of his voice, what he has to say about truth and lies, of savagery and civilization. Of course, I could look him up next year or the year after, but I know I never will. There’s no need for me to accompany him up the Congo River ever again.

Yesterday I taught Blake for the last time.  We read and discussed the Chimney Sweeper poems, “London,” and “The Poison Tree.” It suits me to be done with those poems; nevertheless, I savored intoning each syllable to the class and afterwards enjoyed exploring the poems’ meanings.

I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

 

And I watered it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles.

 

And it grew both day and night.

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.

 

And into my garden stole,

When the night had veiled the pole;

In the morning glad I see;

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

 

I tried as best I could to convey how these rhythmic, rhyming words capture the toxicity of repression and deceit and how the consciousness of the speaker of the poem is not universal, i.e., that his consciousness is not ours nor ours his.  We talked about existentialism and how the theory of existentialism ties into Wordsworth’s perception that reality arises — is concocted — from “eye, and ear, — both what they half create, /And what perceive.”  I cited Hamlet’s observation that “Nothing is neither good or bad but thinking makes it so” and his claim that he “could be bound in a nutshell” yet think himself “king of infinite space,” that is, if he didn’t have “bad dreams.”

The speaker of “The Poison Tree” is pleased that his foe is dead, so, according to his reckoning, “God’s in His heaven, and all’s right with the world.” After all, the speaker has invested a lot of energy cultivating the poison apple.  His joy in his neighbor’s demise contradicts traditional religious and secular moral teaching and perhaps is off-putting to many readers; nevertheless, it makes sense that he expresses his thoughts in jaunty, happy rhythms.

After all, as Pope says, “The sound must seem an echo of the sense.”

In these dwindling last weeks, I’ll also bid adieu to Blake, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Conrad, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, and Auden as they sing their swan songs. After that, I’ll be free to “embrace the trivial days and ram them with the sun,” to paddle out in glassy surf while my colleagues are taking roll or telling some boy to tuck in his shirt.   I’ll be free to read what I choose, to make some new literary friends.  It’s about time I got acquainted with Swann and his daddy Marcel Proust.

Until then, I hope to savor each and every class period rather than looking ahead and counting them down like Advent calendar squares, or a prison sentence, or the way I count down the essays left to be graded or the report card comments left to be composed.

Yes, I am looking forward to not grading essays and writing report card comments. I have three sets left to finish before 8:00 a.m. Wednesday.