Political correctness: euphemism with attitude
Kate Burridge, senior lecturer in linguistics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, places political correctness within the long history of the use of euphemisms. Kate Burridge, with Keith Allan, is the author of Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon, published by OxfordUniversity Press, New York, in 1991.
Just about wherever you look in the papers these days, you find something to read on political correctness. “Cliché of the Decade”, “University Faces Struggle in Political Correctness Debate”, “It’s a Sexist, Racist, Fatist, Ageist World”, “Correct Thinking on Campus”, “No Free Speech Please, We’re Students”, “Will Political Correctness Kill Free Speech Here Too?” “Gay and Jew Get New Deaf Signs in NZ” and so on and so on.
But is “political correctness” really such a recent invention, as all these articles appear to be suggesting, or does it manifest a type of linguistic behaviour that is much more ancient? Back in the early 1900s, British anthropologist Sir James Frazer had this to say about the use of euphemisms by hunters in what at this time would have been called “savage” societies:
The speaker . . . avoids certain words and substitutes others in their stead, either from a desire to soothe and propitiate . . ., or from a dread that. . . he. . .would excite.. . anger or. . . fear
(The Golden Bough, 1911)
In many ways, Frazer might well be describing speakers communicating in the 1990s in a climate of political correctness. Euphemism has existed throughout recorded history; it is used among preliterate people, and has probably been around ever since recognizably human language developed. Current “PC” terminology is just a new brand. In fact to encompass the very wide range of expressions labelled euphemistic, Keith Allan and I have suggested an account of euphemism defined in terms of “face effects”:
A euphemism is used as an alternative to a dispreferred expression, in order to avoid possible loss of face: either one’s own face, or though giving offense, that of the audience, or of some third party.
(Euphemism and Dysphemism, 1991)
Folk belief has it that what we are calling “dispreferred expressions” typically denote taboo topics, and therefore might alternatively be called “taboo terms”. In its original conception, as borrowed from Tonga, taboo is prohibited behaviour, in particular, behaviour believed dangerous to certain individuals or to the society as a whole. Here euphemism can be literally a matter of life of death.
But in English, many of the so-called “taboo terms” are avoided because their use is regarded as distasteful within a given social context. They are dispreferred, not from fear of physical or metaphysical harm, but lest the speakers lose face by offending the sensibilities of their audience. Some speakers would claim that to utter taboo terms would offend their own sensibilities because of the supposed unpleasantness or ugliness of the taboo terms themselves.
In contemporary Western society, euphemism is typically the polite thing to do, and offensive language (or dysphemism) is little more than the breaking of a social convention. Many euphemisms are alternatives for expressions speakers or writers would simply prefer not to use on a given occasion.
For example, Time magazine had the following to say about the US House of Representatives: “Bribes, graft and expenses-paid vacations are never talked about on Capitol Hill. Honorariums, campaign contributions and per diem travel reimbursements are” (Time Australia April 17, 1989). Bribes and graft are hardly taboo terms even among politicians! Other euphemisms without real taboo counterparts are those that “dress up the goods”; for example, when “potholes” become “pavement deficiencies” or when the hamburger industry uses autocondimentation to distinguish a customer’s right to salt his or her own hamburger.
On the face of it, euphemism isn’t such a big deal in English as it is say in Austronesian societies, but one doesn’t have to look far back in history to find dire consequences for people observed or heard violating some of our own Western taboos. And as taboos relax, others come to replace them.
Witness the dilemma that has faced dictionary makers over the years. In our current era of self-congratulatory equality for all, there are even legally recognised sanctions against what might broadly be called “-ist language” – difference between humans is now something that must be euphemized. New taboos are sexism, racism, ageism and religionism, so that sexist, racist, ageist, religionist language is not only contextually dysphemistic, but also legally dysphemistic. These now replace the relaxing laws against profanity, blasphemy and (sexual) obscenity.
Being politically motivated, PC language probably attracts more attention, and certainly more resistance, than most euphemism. Terms (both PC and non-PC) are politically loaded. We are also dealing here with euphemism that arises, or at least is perceived to arise, directly out of linguistic intervention. People dislike linguistic change, especially change which smacks of deliberate manipulation. Hostility is also fuelled by stories (either real or invented) of the misuse of political correctness in the form of over-the-top speech codes and book banning. The creche at La Trobe University, for example, banned the use of about 20 words which were considered to be offensive (including, curiously, terms like girl, boy and even shhhhh). Any offender was made to pay a fine into a box, a kind of swear box for “dirty words”.
In these sorts of activities there is an assumption that language is a kind of monolithic entity with some sort of fixed set of approved meanings and values. Yet no term is intrinsically dysphemistic, or for that matter euphemistic; this is something both critics and supporters of political correctness are apt to forget. Words aren’t mathematical symbols. Normally the choice between alternative expressions depends entirely on context – it’s a matter of style. Accordingly, word meanings and their associations vary continuously in response to a complex of different situational factors, and if any one factor is changed, the language may change to suit. These factors include the relationship between speakers and their audience, the setting, the subject matter and so on.
For example, I have been talking here about PC euphemism; yet because of its overtly political nature, PC language will inevitably be both euphemistic and dysphemistic. Terms of opprobrium like bastard can be used in a jocular, even affectionate fashion, and it has always been that way. Blunt expressions like cark it and croak between certain individuals can be cheerfully euphemistic. Their flippancy detracts from the seriousness of death, which therefore makes them preferable to more direct terms like die. A jocular approach to death is offensive only if it can be expected that the hearer would regard it as such.
Dysphemism or offensiveness is never an intrinsic quality of the word, but of the way it is used. It is therefore possible to reclaim pejorative language; for example, the re-evaluation by certain groups of the derogatory semantics of words like bitch, witch, nigger and coloured (e.g. Nigger with Attitude.) Of course in mouths of outsiders, the terms remain highly offensive.
Terms typically don’t remain euphemistic for long either. The negative perception people have of whatever the euphemistic word refers to ends up contaminating the word itself. The degree of contamination perceived ranges on a scale which has fear, abhorrence, loathing and contempt at one end, and nothing worse than low social esteem at the other.
Just look at the way words meaning “young woman” go down in value. English hussy originally from housewife shows this, as do hundreds of others (by contrast, terms for men remain remarkably stable).
Hence the ever-changing chains of vocabulary items for words denoting taboo concepts – the more severe the taboo, the longer the chain. For example, the proliferation of expressions for bodily effluvia, sex and tabooed body parts; English alone has reportedly over 2,000 for “prostitute”.
PC language is no different. Witness the rapid deterioration of words denoting “old”. Words like geriatric and senile, once respectful terms for one’s elders, have become highly contemptuous in the 20th century. So far the word senior as in senior citizen (replacing old-aged pensioner) has not yet acquired the same negative overtones as these two words, yet arguably it has already lost its euphemistic sheen. African-American now replaces black which earlier replaced Negro and coloured. And so it goes on; if society’s prejudices continue to bubble away, the negative connotations soon reattach themselves.
Not everyone shares my view of PC language. Deborah Cameron (in Verbal Hygiene 1995) prefers not to describe it as euphemism, arguing there is more to political correctness than just “sensitivity”. A term like “sex worker” is not simply a positive expression for tabooed “prostitute”, but deliberately highlights certain aspects of this group’s identity. PC language is itself a form of public action – by drawing attention to form, it forces us to sit up and take notice. Euphemisms are certainly motivated by the desire not to be offensive, but they are more than just “linguistic fig leaves”. They can be deliberately provocative too. Think of political allegories like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the reasons why such texts are so successful is that they exploit euphemisms to publicly expound taboo topics, while at the same time pretending to disguise that purpose. Like any tease, such disguise may itself be titillating.
There will always be cross-cultural and historical differences with respect to the use of euphemism and dysphemism, but they are superficial. Underlying motivations remain the same. All verbal taboos, even those imposed by purely social conventions, serve direct human interests by avoiding those things which threaten to cause offense and distress.
But all euphemisms (and dysphemisms) communicate an attitude, both to the hearer and also to what is spoken about. What PC language communicates is a political attitude and that is what makes it so explosive.