- “Euphemistic evolution” is when what’s considered “acceptable terminology” changes over time.
- Keeping up with the trends of euphemistic evolution can help us avoid unknowingly causing distress for others.
- While there’s a fine line between self-censorship and not being an a**hole, we do bear moral and even legal responsibility for our words.
Estimated reading time: 6-12 minutes
Warning: Just like last week’s, this piece features discussions about inflammatory language. As such, I’ll be spelling out multiple swear words and terms often considered offensive.
Last week’s piece discussed a controversial soccer chant to raise the question of how we determine what is and isn’t considered acceptable to say within “society at large.” While I’m not sure there’s an exact, formulaic answer to this question, I am sure that standards change over time. Want an example?
Less than 50 years ago, the actual medically-accepted term for someone with Down’s Syndrome was “Mongolian Idiot.” You can fact-check that right here if you don’t believe me. And I wouldn’t blame you for being skeptical. When I first learned this linguistic tidbit, I let out an involuntary, shocked laugh because it’s almost unbelievable how offensive that would be considered today. It felt too over-the-top to be true. And yet, it is. In fact, that term was used in prestigious medical journals well within my parents’ lifetimes.
This process of linguistic change has been referred to as “euphemistic evolution.” I bring this up because I believe the goal kick chant that was the focus of last week’s piece will undergo a similar “phasing out.” It has enough negative connotations and momentum behind wanting to ban its usage that such an outcome is probably inevitable. Along the way, FIFA will likely force Mexico’s national team to play more and more matches behind closed doors (and even forfeit matches) until the chant quietly disappears.
Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with the people who say FIFA’s determination to eliminate a disputed homophobic stadium chant is incredibly hypocritical. After all, they allowed the 2022 World Cup to be played in a nation where homosexuality is outrightly illegal, but…baby steps, I suppose. And that’s somewhat beside the point.
Wait, who are we demeaning, here?
While today’s piece is going to have a broader scope than last week’s, let’s briefly summarize. As I mentioned in Part 1, a key facet of the difficulty in eliminating the chant is the reality that many fans of Mexico’s national team don’t see the word “p*to” as insulting to homosexuals.
But, let’s say for a moment that this word simply does mean “bitch,” and nothing more. I’m going to play devil’s advocate and ask if this means, “We’re not degrading homosexual people by using this chant, we’re degrading women.” And let me be clear, that would hardly be unique to fans of Mexico’s national soccer team.
Men have been using “bitch” to insult other men for as long as I can remember. The prevailing connotation seems to be that this means the person being insulted is weak and inferior. The same goes for “pussy.” Dig just a little bit under the surface, and both of these insults have sexual connotations intended to demean heterosexual guys by unfavorably comparing them to women or homosexual men. Though it’s here we can be reminded of the funny (but apparently not Betty White) bit about which sex has tougher genitalia.
Comedian Sheng Wang said during a 2011 episode of Comedy Central Presents:
A friend said to me, “Hey you need to grow a pair. Grow a pair, bro.” It’s when someone calls you weak, but they associate it with a lack of testicles. Which is weird, because testicles are the most sensitive things in the world. If you suddenly just grew a pair, you’d be a lot more vulnerable. If you want to be tough, you should lose a pair. If you want to be real tough, you should grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.
But enough of this digression down comedy road.
More on euphemistic evolution…
As I mentioned earlier, “euphemistic evolution” is when standards of offensiveness and propriety change over time. Clearly, it’s no longer considered acceptable to refer to a person with Down’s Syndrome as a “Mongolian Idiot,” hopefully for obvious reasons. Even one of the terms that replaced it, “mentally retarded” has been broadly abandoned, since it’s been used as an insult so often that it’s widely considered offensive.
And it doesn’t stop there. “Autism Spectrum Disorder” is a label applied to a broad range of behaviors and neuroatypical patterns. However, having spent a portion of 2022 coaching youth soccer players aged 10 to 16, I can tell you that “autistic” has rapidly become a go-to insult for teenage boys.
And yet, the opposite seems to have happened with the phrase, “You suck.” I’ll leave its origin either to your deductive reasoning skills or Google, but suffice it to say that it fits into the previous category of degrading a heterosexual male by comparing him to someone who is not. And yet, I don’t see anyone clamoring for “You suck,” to be eliminated from the societal vernacular. While saying it isn’t considered polite, it’s far from taboo or edgy, and it’s not hard for me to imagine that phrase used to be considered far more offensive than it is now.
Now, I do have a hypothesis as to why this happens one way or the other for a particular word or phrase. I initially thought that the intent to demean drives euphemistic evolution. Use a current “medical term” like “Mongolian Idiot” as a putdown enough times, and some people will say, “Hey, maybe it’s not cool to use that as an insult.” For this reason, the term “autistic” is probably destined to be euphemistically evolved out of the common parlance within the next few years.
But why not, “You suck?” That’s clearly intended to demean. The difference is likely because something like being born with Down’s Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder is completely outside of one’s control. While “sucking,” or “being bad at” something could conceivably be changed with time and effort. So yeah, maybe not using unchangeable characteristics people were born with as insults is a decent rule of thumb. I could get on board with that. Anyway…
Sticks and Stones
As we continue to dive deeper, I want to make my view clear on one particular point. Language can be harmful.
You’re likely familiar with the schoolyard rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” First, that’s clearly a bunch of BS. I’m willing to bet that nearly everyone can think of a time when the words of another person led to a great deal of suffering, particularly in our school-age years.
I view this saying as missing the point as much as claiming that a romantic partner’s infidelity couldn’t hurt, because it doesn’t physically involve you. Nobody would really argue that, would they? But, back to the point.
I had forgotten this fact until conducting research for this week’s piece, but the “assault” in “assault and battery” refers to verbal intimidation and threats of violence. “Battery” is when someone makes good on their threat with a physical attack.
But, assault, even if simply verbal, can be punishable by up to six months in jail! The point is, we bear not simply a moral responsibility for our words, but a legal one as well.
The difference between censorship and not being an a**hole.
Now we’ve arrived at an arguably even trickier issue. What counts as censorship, and what counts as being conscious of what you say for the benefit of your fellow humans? To be clear, some people do look to take offense at every possible opportunity. Others seek to annoy, upset, and trigger anyone who will give them attention. In my opinion, both are selfish, so we’ll disregard them for the sake of this argument.
But for the rest of us, it’s possible that when reading the earlier sections of this piece, you thought to yourself, “If someone gets offended by the word “bitch,” or the phrase, “You suck,” can I say anything?” Well, a famous Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi, once said something like, “The only way to speak the truth is to be silent.” But I’m not advocating for that. However, I am suggesting awareness of what’s broadly considered unacceptable. Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences of our words. And to use an extreme example, I think few people would claim “censorship” in the defense of someone who got fired for calling their boss the n-word.
Now, I don’t for a second want people to gravitate toward either extreme, verbally walking on eggshells all the time, or aggressively policing what other people say. However, I do believe we bear at least some responsibility for how our words may be received. Everyone will benefit from a simple awareness of context. Here’s an easy example. In many Spanish-speaking countries, “gordito” (little fat boy) is considered a term of endearment.
However, try casually saying to someone in the U.S., “Hey fatty,” and then claiming you didn’t mean to cause them any offense. Good luck with that.
I’d like to think most people wouldn’t want to do things like that.
Call me naive, but I do think most people generally want others to feel welcome. If we know that something we say will be truly upsetting to the person receiving it, we often don’t say it or try to change how we do. In the past decade, there has been a bit of a backlash to this sentiment by people who feel they can no longer keep up with euphemistic evolution, and are therefore labeled “bad people” for their word choices. This means there are certainly individuals who live according to the principle, “Fuck it. I’m going to say whatever I want and if it offends you, that’s your problem.”
And look. There is a degree of truth in that. When someone’s words upset or offend you, it’s worth looking within to try to understand why, as well as determining if you want to give them the power over your feelings and actions, rather than just reflexively lashing out in return.
But, at the end of the day, the world would be a happier place if we all did our best to create a kind and welcoming environment for others. And if that means avoiding casual usage of a few terms, I don’t think that’s too steep a price to pay. Due to euphemistic evolution, “the rules” will change, in much the same way as trends in popular music, clothing, and food don’t stay the same. But that’s not that a big deal, is it? Especially if when someone makes a mistake, they’re given a chance to apologize, learn, and grow, rather than being banished from “polite society.” Hey, a guy can dream, right?
And this way, everybody would win. And as a bonus, we’d have even more opportunities to look back on things like the “p*to” goal kick chant and chuckle to ourselves, “Wow. I can’t believe they used to say that!”
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you! Can you think of a few examples of euphemistic evolution in your lifetime? What are some things that were common to say when you were younger that nobody says now? Come on, be brave! I won’t try to get you canceled, I’m genuinely curious about this. Reply to this email and let me know!