The Euphemism Treadmill is common in the areas of language related to race and ethnicity, disease, and disability. What is this phenomenon? A euphemism is a word substituted for one that is considered unpleasant or embarrassing, which can be motivated by a desire to not offend. However, sometimes these good intentions can backfire. The so-called “Euphemism Treadmill” is when a word becomes pejorative because of its reference to offensive concepts, and so a polite word is introduced to replace it. As an example, latrine became water closet, which became toilet, which became bathroom, which became restroom. All related words will eventually stigmatize because the very subject matter is taboo. Over time, a euphemism becomes tainted by association and is also replaced. In the well-meaning search to find a stigma-free term, this cycle repeats itself. No matter how benign the euphemism appears at first, it will become offensive and be replaced by another word that in due course will also undergo the same process. However, relabeling a concept does not necessarily reduce its stigma or improve people’s attitudes.
A good example of the Euphemism Treadmill at work is the language used to talk about disability. Historically, idiot, imbecile and moron were part of a now disused classification system of intelligence that was used by doctors to describe what we today call “intellectual disabilities.” Idiot dates back to the fourteenth century, imbecile is from the sixteenth century, while moron is a relatively new term that replaced the older terms simpleton or feeble–minded. These are no longer used as clinical terms, but they still exist as ableist insults. They were replaced by mentally handicapped, which became the standard term for someone with physical or intellectual disabilities until it developed negative connotations in the 1960s. Handicapped is mostly outdated and derogatory when used in reference to people, but it is still accepted in some contexts, when referring to parking spaces and bathroom stalls, although accessible or disabled are preferred in many places.
In the mid-twentieth century, mental retardation and mentally retarded were also introduced as diagnostic terms to replace the offensive outdated words. These phrases labeled a person with an IQ of lower than 70 who had limited social and practical skills. Almost immediately, these words fell prey to the euphemism treadmill. Retarded and the abbreviation retard became strong insults, especially when used to describe people with disabilities. The recent abbreviation tard is also highly offensive, which is commonly used as a suffix to form new insults, such as libtard (“liberal retard”) and glutard (“gluten retard”) to refer to someone with a gluten-intolerance. In an effort to convey a more positive image, special was adopted in place of mental retardation. The word was chosen to imply positive connotations, that people with disabilities are somehow exceptional, distinctive, and unique. However, the word has been criticized as patronizing, and for singling out people with disabilities when they want to be treated as equals, not as special. Special soon developed negative connotations and was affected by the Euphemism Treadmill. However, it is still acceptable in some contexts in which the word has been institutionalized (E.g., The Special Olympics, special education, and special needs).
Today, these older terms are mostly considered to be ableist, and have been superseded by the preferred term disabled, while cognitive disability, developmental disability, processing disorders and learning difficulties are also considered to be appropriate by stakeholders.
For a further discussion of this and related topics, see Chapter 5 of Karen’s forthcoming book ‘On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present’.