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!

2 thoughts on “The Shelf Life of Euphemisms

  1. Cluck you tongues…? Is that like sucking your teeth? It’s hard to describe. It’s like when you someone is annoyed and sort of makes a clicking noise in disgust. “Mmmffft” is the internet chat slang way of saying it, but it’s kind hard to make out unless you already know the sound they are describing, or you’ve been around teenagers at any time recently.

    I could be wrong, btw. Maybe that particular onomatopoeia has actually been around longer than that.

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