Euphemism drift

Today, a few examples of a linguistic phenomenon that delights and vexes me, which I am calling “euphemism drift.”

Full disclosure: when I sat down to write this post, I thought it was an original idea. But Google corrected that impression. So here is a Wikipedia segment that is more or less the topic. And apparently Steven Pinker has named this concept the “euphemism treadmill.”  

Still, I think being deterred by unoriginality is a coward’s game, so on I press.

For the record, this post is going to use the “r word,” but not (as I hope you’ll find) in a derogatory way. In fact, I want to show that the word has never been the problem. 

Yikes, right?

But let’s start with a fun example first. “Happy hour.” Now, what is happy hour? To take it literally, it’s an hour that’s happy, or more likely, an hour during which people spending the hour are happy. But we all know that’s not what it means. No one talks about “pre-dinner drinking time;” instead, we have chosen the euphemism “happy hour.” 

A lot of us are engaging now in “virtual happy hours” during the pandemic. This often means that we’re sitting in our houses, either drinking alcohol or not drinking alcohol, while having a video call with colleagues or friends.

Imagine my delight when I heard from a friend that his workplace avoids calling these video gatherings “happy hours,” because that term implies alcohol use, and alcohol use is sensitive for some people. Instead, they have “virtual social hours.” 

Imagine that the new term sticks. People will continue to either drink a beer or not while they call into these virtual social hours. When we return to physical workplaces, there will be a lingering habit of calling the Friday trip to the bar a “social hour.” In time, the term “social hour” will become tainted by alcohol as surely as “happy hour” has. At that point, the workplace will have to retreat to another word to make sure that workplace socializing does not imply alcohol use.

But here’s the problem: the term “social hour” has as little to do literally with alcohol as “happy hour” does. If the problem is alcohol use, then the problem is alcohol use. Retreating to a new euphemism is a temporary solution, and indeed it is no solution at all, if the actual problem is about alcohol.


Next example: the “r word.” “Retarded.” I call it the “r word” because in some circles, this is seen as an unspeakably unkind slur, and I understand why. But I’m equally interested in its history and its purpose.

Like many other cruel slurs for people with mental disabilities, the word “retarded” itself began as a kind word—kinder, that is, than the other words at the time. Think of even worse words: idiot, imbecile, cretin. These, too, began as kind, enlightened, medical words, meant to replace whatever previous word people had hurled with contempt at those different than them. 

“Cretin” comes from French, a corruption of “Christian,” “used to mean ‘human being’, apparently as a reminder that, though deformed, cretins were human and not beasts.”

Idiot: actually, in researching this one I discovered that it’s basically always been rude. Win some, lose some.

Moron” was a term coined by doctors to denote “the highest class of feeble-minded persons,” and it had a life span of exactly 12 years of polite medical use in the early 20th century before it became an insult.

“Imbecile” was simply the French for “feeble,” but took on an insulting meaning once it was applied to those with mental disabilities.

Finally, “retarded” is simply the past-participle of “retard,” meaning “to slow.” Anything can be retarded: progress, a car’s speed, the growth of my sourdough starter when I put it in the fridge. But around 1895, doctors began to use that word to denote (in polite, clinical terms) when children were developing more slowly than their peers, and the rest is history.

The point is, no matter what words we choose in the hopes that people will stop hurling contempt, people hurl contempt anyway. They do so as easily with a new word as they did with the old word. Thus these kind words become unkind, and we need new words to replace them. 

Just like the problem with “happy hour” is alcohol, the problem with “retarded” is not and has never been the word. The problem is the despicable human desire to prop ourselves up by scorning those who are different and whom we perceive as weak. We will never find a magic euphemism for mental disabilities that stops people from being cruel. The problem is the cruelty. 


A final, far less emotional example: “CUI.” I’m certain that you will all recognize this as an alternative spelling of the Quechua word for “guinea pig meat.” But if you are in the federal government, you may also recognize it as the initialism for “Controlled Unclassified Information,” a whole messy category of information that is not formally classified, but which the government would like to control anyway.

Now, this bothers me for several reasons, but the main one is the linguistic torture. Consider the word “classified.” Its literal meaning is “put into a class.” Indeed, the whole idea of “classified” information is a euphemism. It was a way of saying “this information has been marked for special treatment for security reasons” in a lot fewer words, and in a sort of cloak-and-dagger evasive way. 

But the word “classified” itself has very little meaning. It begs the question: classified as what? We all know the answer, of course, because over the decades, the word “classified” has taken on content: it has absorbed all the security/secrecy meaning that the simple word intentionally avoided in the first place. 

Then, due to another kind of drift (secrecy drift, perhaps a subject for another time) we find that the classification process is messy, somehow both too easy and too hard, and it’s an undesirable tool to manage our needs. We want to control information without “classifying” it. Here’s the irony: we create a whole new class—CUI—to classify things into to make sure they aren’t classified. “Controlled Unclassified Information,” as a category, is linguistically like saying “a class of information that is not in a class.” It’s meaningless. 

But that’s euphemism drift, baby. 


If you like this topic, think about the many words for the device in your home that flushes, and the room it sits in. Think about how many of these words point desperately in other directions—at the bath, at the water, at the toiletries and powders on the counter—to avoid pointing at the horrible thing itself.

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