Today we broach another topic that I once covered in my college newspaper days. Those who know me know I have a fascination with words and how they are used. To that end, I feel it’s time to discuss the use of euphemisms.
A euphemism is defined as the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt. This, I feel, is the problem. “Mild, indirect, or vague” is, to me at least, just another way of saying weak and emotionless.
Euphemisms don’t accurately convey the emotion or the seriousness of the things they are supposed to represent. One famous example of this was when the late comedian and thinker George Carlin pointed out the evolution of the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the original phrase Shell Shock which, in his mind, weakened the impact of the word and might have inadvertently caused fewer people to be concerned about it and those suffering from it..
I am from the school of thought that says that the words we use should reflect the context of a persons speech – not the content. What a person says is not nearly as important as what they are trying to convey with what they say.
To explain what I mean, take the word “gay” for example. In and of itself, “gay” is not a negative term. Even gay people refer to themselves and one another as gay. It’s when someone uses the word to describe something or someone they have disdain for (Ex. “That’s so gay.”) that the context shifts from neutral to negative. The word itself has no power until the speaker bestows it with his or her context.
We don’t need to clean up the language by softening it; we need to focus on the people that use language as artillery to hurt others. And that hurt can take many forms. Whether it’s a direct attack as in the “Gay” example I provided or tricking people into thinking that changing the language changes the situation ala Carlin’s PTSD example.
Language is a powerful force and it needs to be respected and used responsibly as you would any other tool. What we say is not nearly so dangerous as how we say it. Please, think before you speak.