Euphemisms and Intolerance

I couldn’t help but notice in class that many people kept referring to people with dwarfism as “little people,” instead of midgets, dwarves, or Lilliputians. What I found most interesting about this is how people went about referring to midgets as “little people” – occasionally they would pause mid-sentence as if looking for the right word or phrase, and then decide on “little people.” Sometimes I’d hear someone quickly correct themself when the word midget slipped past their lips.

It seems to me that the emphasis some people place on being politically correct has the exact opposite effect, and rather drawing attention away from an abnormality, it just makes it more apparent.  People simply try to use such words to make themselves feel better, or because they believe whoever they are referring to feels better about it. I’ve always though that consciously making yourself use such euphemisms just makes the difference that much more apparent. This is summed up rather brilliantly in the South Park Season 5, Episode 2: Conjoined Fetus Lady:

In the episode, the town of South Park has a “Conjoined Twin Myslexia Week” in order to raise awareness about the nurse with a stillborn fetus attached to her head. Naturally, rather than helping the woman, the citizens of South Park make her feel like more of an outsider by emphasizing her difference. This is no different from what people do in class by consciously referring to midgets as “little people.” The only difference is the extent to which the difference is emphasized.

The comedian George Carlin talked a lot about euphemisms and racial slurs, and sums up my viewpoint rather well:

“It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent. I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. Bullshit! It’s the context that makes them good or bad.”

In other words, I’d say that as long as you are not specifically using a word to be degrading, abusive, racist, or sexist, then there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t use it.

George Carlin – Euphemisms

More on euphemisms

George Carlin Doing it Again

This is the skit the quote came from – at about 46:30 is the part where he talks about racial and sexist slurs

*I’d warn people about the content possibly being offensive, but that is probably already apparent*


~ by xanthochroi on April 12, 2010.

3 Responses to “Euphemisms and Intolerance”

  1. I think you are absolutely right about the intent of the word being the important thing versus what the word (which is arbitrary) actually is. While typing my own post earlier today, I noticed myself grasping for the PC terms and realizing that those terms may yet become antiquated themselves in the near future because they draw so much attention to the category itself.

    The one thing I would suggest which you didn’t address is that we have to consider that the nature of any language is entrenched in a specific social discourse which does have its implied meanings. As we are fully aware of certain contexts that certain words are used in, it may or may not be appropriate to use them. While I agree that PC terms can get out of control, there is a reason that they arose in the first place.


  2. While I find your viewpoint interesting, I can’t help but disagree. Though the motivation behind choosing a certain word is important, I don’t think we should ignore how other people interpret what we say. After all, language is created socially, not individually. If little people are offended by the term midget, we ought to avoid using it. Moreover, the words we use, perhaps subconsciously, help shape our reality. The phrase “little people”, in my opinion, is preferable to “midget” because it reminds us these folks are people, not subhuman mutants. Call it political correctness (or whatever euphemism you’d like), but I think it is really about doing our best not to make a bad situation even worse.

    – Nick B.

  3. In response to Nick;

    I’m not implying that we should ignore how other people interpret what we say. The point I was trying to make is that there is more to what we say than what words we use to say it. It is very much like being able to distinguish sarcasm in certain situations.
    The problem I have with euphemistic language is that the use of such language places unnecessary emphasis on the difference that is trying to be minimalized, so it can have an adverse effect.

    To John:

    I agree with you that the social implications of words are just as important as well. I’m not saying people should necessarily go around using words that others will find offensive. I was trying to emphasize the fact that people place unnecessary meaning on certain words which inherently makes them appear as negative words, regardless of the context.

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