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.
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.”
If you’ve been on the internet in the last five years, you may have noticed that all of a sudden, “content” is everywhere. There’s new content, great content, content overload, and there are content creators keeping the whole operation going.
The word “content,” of course, has many meanings across all parts of speech, but the one I’m referring to is the third noun entry here: “the principal substance (such as written matter, illustrations, or music) offered by a website.”
Let me concede off the bat that “content” in its internet usage is a “real word.”*
Still on the subject of podcasts in the midst of a Busy Holiday Season®️, there’s another one I feel completely compelled to share, even if absolutely none of you will be interested in joining me: The History of English podcast (recently misheard rather intriguingly as the “History of English Podcasts”) is completely wonderful.
The show, running since 2012, appears to be an extracurricular passion project of a solo practitioner lawyer from North Carolina, who says absolutely nothing about himself on the show. But he has quite a lot to say: he presents the history of English in meticulous hourlong increments, starting from the absolute dawn of the knowable history of human speech all the way up to—God knows, because seven years in, he’s only gotten a little beyond Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a few hundred momentous years shy of Shakespeare.
Anyone interested in etymology or English history or both would almost certainly enjoy the show. One thing I find tremendously charming is the way that Kevin (for that is the host’s name) delivers etymological facts by theme as he marches forward in time. An episode documenting the messy bloodline of King Alfred the Great, for example, provides him an opportunity to talk about Old English words for family and inheritance. But just when it veers close to feeling like a lengthy fact dump, the show manages to keep moving along narratively.
But anyway, enough about the show. Let’s talk about me.
I’ve had a long-simmering interest in the history of languages. Before the internet, I remember staying up late with my parents’ encyclopedia, reading the cross-references to work out how languages are related to and descended from each other. I briefly flirted with the idea of majoring in linguistics, before realizing that (at my university, at least) the subject was a great deal more medical, more wetly throaty, than I’d anticipated.
But there’s no shame in being a dilettante, I hope, and Kevin from the podcast gives me hope about even the prospect of being a devoted learner and teacher in one’s spare time around a busy lawyer’s schedule.
Okay, actually, enough about me. Back to the show.
The early episodes of the podcast go way, way back. By episode 7, we’re still in the land of Proto-Indo-European, which is the language that gave birth to most European and some Asian languages. It was spoken so long ago, by people who did not write, that all we know about it has been reconstructed by linguists working backward from modern languages like forensic analysts, finding traces of ancient words in the similarities and gaps between current words.
This absolutely blows my mind, and always has. Not only do linguists figure out little clues about dead languages by finding commonalities between their daughter languages; they also bring in geography and botany and biology and genetics to connect the dots. For example, we find some clues about where these Proto-Indo-Europeans lived by analyzing which words they had, and didn’t have, to describe the world around them—no words for “monkey” or “palm tree,” so not the jungle, and none for “olive” or “grape,” so a colder climate. Words for certain kinds of sheep only, which tells us something about what kinds of animals they could have raised, and that in turn tells us something about what their world looked like.
This kind of thing is completely bananas to me: can you imagine doing this as a job? Can you imagine tracing the spoken words of people who died five thousand years ago, and also getting to learn a lot about sheep in the process? Goals, I tell ya.
Something I find so fascinating about the history of words is that it traces the history of thought, and the history of sound. These are things that don’t tend to leave impressions in the archaeological record, and they can be obfuscated in written histories. But words can’t help but shift and change with use, like a well-worn pair of jeans thinning around the wearer’s knees.
And one thing that language doesn’t lie about is the thought process that goes into the mundane everyday choices of words that average people make. Despite the best intentions of grammarians and usage experts everywhere, language never has been primarily about perfection. It’s about communication. It does its job to the extent that people can understand what others want to say, and can make themselves understood in the process.
People of all stripes are natural geniuses at inventing new, easier, and more nuanced ways of saying what they mean. Sometimes they borrow and break old words to do so. Sometimes, this way, words come to mean their opposite: pairs like “guest” and “host,” “give” and “take,” and “black” and “white” come from the same Indo-European root word. Through the messy process of speech occurring over generations of people delicately navigating their societies, these words took on seemingly nonsensical new meanings. And just like we’re all writers now, we’re all the masters of how to communicate our meaning, our humor, and our nuances exactly how we please.
Okay, now back to me.
In Book One, I indulged myself by writing a little sub-subplot about linguistic history. (This is the pleasure of writing a book: no one can stop you). I imagined a pair of late-Victorian scholars chasing a theory about how one might get to know the ancient inhabitants of Europe by looking at the words they borrowed from each other. As it happens, I think the theory as presented in the book is wrong, but the great thing about fiction is that, again, no one can stop you. I can do that on purpose and no one is allowed to criticize me!
I imagine most of you are either long gone or reading out of mere politeness by this point. But to sum it all up: I think there’s something tremendously beautiful about how language can pry open our deep history. Every time we open our mouths to speak, we’re not only articulating our own present thoughts—we’re also building upon the feelings and frustrations and joys and creativity of millions of people over thousands of generations. All the people that came before us still live through us in this little way, carved into our bodies in our DNA and carved into our brains with the words we keep shifting and borrowing and laughing and shouting.
Further recommended reading if you are interested: John McWhorter’s piece, which includes a fascinating idea that the weird way English uses the verb “to do” (as in: “do you like me?” Where every other self-respecting language would say: “Like you me?”) actually comes from Celtic languages.
(Pair this post, if you dare, with a listen to my absolute queen Joanna Newsom’s album Divers, which is all a meditation on time and what it means to love another person in the face of the temporary span of a life. It’s a ton of fun. Here’s a sample:)
And what lies under now the city is gone. Look, and despair.
“Sapokanikan,” Joanna Newsom
I recently spent a week with my parents in some of the National Parks of the Southwest. We went to the Grand Canyon (very grand indeed), Zion, and Bryce Canyon. These are all fantastic places to spend time, and I would highly recommend them. The views, man.
Of my parents and me, two of us arrived in a new decade in the last year. We thought, in not quite so many words, that a trip to the parks would be a good opportunity to mark the passage of time. Our trip also happened to coincide with All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’,) and All Souls’ Day, when quite a lot of people are considering all those who have come before us.
So that’s fun.
But you don’t have to be in landscapes like these long to understand that the kind of time you can count in birthdays, or even in entire human civilizations, is nothing in comparison with the kind of time that is cleaved open and on display in a canyon.
You learn at the Grand Canyon that, even though you’re looking a mile down into a few billion years of rock history, which the river has carved through in the last five million years (give or take!), there are a casual 270 million years of rock history that eroded clean away before the river had a chance to cut into them. Just—270 million missing years, and what you’re looking at is the rest.
You see these amazing landforms that basically defy logic. It’s rock behaving as rock has no business behaving. You know better (because you watched the video in the rangers’ station and you read the plaques) but it looks like rocks are growing like trees. It looks like rocks are flowing like molasses. It looks like rocks are flopping like pancakes, one on top of the other.
The whole thing is just time and mutation. Volcanoes beget flatlands. Marshes give way to oceans, which give way to deserts, which rise thousands of feet to become mountains, and then rivers file them down into chasms, revealing the history from within. This happens not at all silently, but wordlessly.
And even though it all took a few million or billion years, depending on how you count, it’s also changing every year. The spooky hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are inherently temporary. Every winter, ice pushes them apart more, and every summer their rocks fall. I saw it happen: a dozen or so rocks the size of my fist tumbled quite mundanely off a cliff as I hiked below. This, day after day, is how plateaus become walls, walls become windowed, windowed walls become towers, and towers crumble into hillocks, then into flatness. The high land will erode, 1-4 feet every century, who knows how far back? Until the infrastructure of the park, which sits atop the plateau looking down over the canyon, will be eaten away and gone.
We happen to be able to see it now, but it’s anything but permanent.
It’s enough to make you wonder what “conservation” is all about. We wouldn’t be wise to attempt to conserve a hoodoo. We’d do more damage to the park by trying to freeze it in time than by letting it be. What it is is something that exists for a time, maybe a few decades, and then collapses. It wouldn’t be conservation to turn it into something else entirely—something that lasts forever. That would be transformation. (Appropriate for Halloween, perhaps, when zombies and monsters of all kinds roam, but not for All Saints’ Day, when we peacefully remember those who have come and gone before us.)
Maybe conservation is, instead, giving all the entities that make up the Earth a chance to make their own story, in rock or tree or fur or desert.
So it would seem to be true:
when cruel birth debases, we forget.
When cruel death debases,
we believe it erases all the rest
But stand brave, life-liver,
bleeding out your days
in the river of time.
time moves both ways,
“Time, As a Symptom,” Joanna Newsom
On long walks out there, I started to think about sandstone. You’re surrounded by it in that environment. Sand is everything: it’s the desert, and it’s the ocean floor, and now it’s the canyon. But it’s just sand. Walking along the canyon bottom you feel it underneath your boots, just as slow and yielding as a beach. What’s beneath your feet used to be the canyon walls above you. It’s the bits that have disintegrated lately.
If you touch the walls as you pass, you might rub off some sand. It comes easily, when it’s ready. But underneath the loosened part, there’s hard sandstone. It’s not ready, not yet. But give it a year or a thousand and it will blow away too.
That’s stone, and we’re people. We live on different time frames, by a factor of many zeroes. But like rock we always change, even until we die. That’s the wonderful thing about being alive. The change doesn’t all happen at once, and it doesn’t happen in an orderly way. We’ll find that there are places that are a little looser, a little more ready to give. We can be grateful for those. The rest might be a little tougher. That’s okay. Give it time. Because the loosening of what’s easy, the letting go of the stone that’s ready to be sand already, makes room for more change. And the loosening of that loose sand is what slowly, imperceptibly, loosens the hard stuff.
To recap: I’ve been addressing the interesting but often unverifiable claims that the Enneagram is quite old. Often, this claim is equal parts squishy definition and wishful thinking.
Now I turn to my final chapter on this journey: why is it wishful thinking? Why is being old desirable, let alone desirable enough to get us all to do some dubious accounting?
There’s the undeniable romance of it, of course. Compare this snippet of a description of the Enneagram’s history:
Variations of this symbol also appear in Islamic Sufi traditions, perhaps arriving there through the Arabian philosopher al-Ghazzali. Around the fourteenth century the Naqshbandi Order of Sufism, variously known as the “Brotherhood of the Bees” (because they collected and stored knowledge) and the “Symbolists” (because they taught through symbols) is said to have preserved and passed on the Enneagram symbol.
Speculation has it the Enneagram found its way into esoteric Christianity through Pseudo-Dionysius (who was influenced by the neo-Platonists) and through the mystic Ramon Lull (who was influenced by his Islamic studies.)
On the frontispiece of a textbook written in the seventeenth century by the Jesuit mathematician and student of arithmology Athanasius Kircher, an Enneagram-like figure appears.
With the pedestrian-sounding contention that it’s an amalgamation, created in the 1970s, out of bits of various ideas.
Wouldn’t you rather have that Indiana Jones trek through the sands of time, with a soupçon of a Da Vinci Code-style coverup, a conspiracy of ancient and esoteric brotherhoods?
Who wouldn’t? Especially when your alternative is that people in the 20th century, many of whom are still living, just sort of…made something up.
We have a deep craving for authenticity. This is good. We are naturally skeptical. Also good. So especially when it comes to something as sensitive as a system that will purport to turn a dark mirror on our subconscious motivations, we may well take a step back and demand to see some badges. Ancient brotherhoods are decent badges to flash, quelling at once our skepticism and our thirst for intrigue.
Or, those of us who have found this system helpful, and who also thrill to old stuff, get deeply excited when we see a glimmer of a comparison in something old: Look, the stops on Odysseus’s journey in the Odyssey appear to align with the Enneagram types! Look, there are seven or nine deadly sins, give or take! And we may skip over the task of actually finding a credible connection that goes beyond coincidence, flapping our hands instead at the unknowability of ancient wisdom traditions.
But here’s my theory: saying “it’s new” isn’t all that much more accurate than saying “it’s old.” Was it made up in the 1970s? In my opinion, yes: anything recognizable as the Enneagram of Personality was. But I don’t think we need to stop there, because those people in the 1970s (principally Ichazo and Naranjo) didn’t make up this system out of new cloth. They made it out of lots of bits of old cloth.
And new stuff out of old cloth is as close as we often get in this world to “old cloth.”
Here’s an analogy: even as the genetic testing industry continues to grow (and even though I very much enjoy genealogy), it’s clear that you don’t have to go back very far until the distinction between your-family and not-your-family breaks down.
One fifth of people alive a millennium ago in Europe are the ancestors of no one alive today. Their lines of descent petered out at some point, when they or one of their progeny did not leave any of their own. Conversely, the remaining 80 percent are the ancestor of everyone living today. All lines of ancestry coalesce on every individual in the tenth century.
Rutherford at 162.
Does that seem impossible–that every living person of European descent is descended from every European in the year 1000 or so who has any living descendants? He explains further:
[A]ccept that everyone of European descent should have billions of ancestors at a time in the tenth century, but there weren’t billions of people around then, so try to cram them into the number of people that actually were. The math that falls out of that apparent impasse is that all of the billions of lines of ancestry have coalesced into not just a small number of people, but effectively literally everyone who was alive at that time. So, by inference, if Charlemagne was alive in the ninth century, which we know he was, and he left descendants who are alive today, which we also know is true, then he is the ancestor of everyone of European descent alive in Europe today.
Rutherford at 162.
So all of us who have European descent are related to Charlemagne. All of us who have European descent are, equally, related to Kurt the Pig Boy who lived just down the hill from Charlemagne’s palace, as long as Kurt has any living descendants.
This kind of math takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of genealogy: those of us who are able to trace our ancestry back several generations often feel proud if we find someone notable in the genetic heap, perhaps forgetting how many hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of others also can claim the same heritage. Charlemagne is indeed in many of our bloodlines, but in menial quantities that it’s hardly worth mentioning. He belongs to history far more than he belongs to our genealogy.
Rutherford shows how this logic goes if we zoom out from Europe to the entire world: at least one researcher has estimated that “the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today on Earth lived only around 3,400 years ago.” Rutherford at 164.
If this sounds too recent, or baffling because of remote populations in South America or the islands of the South Pacific, remember that no population is known to have remained isolated over a sustained period of time, even in those remote locations. The influx of the Spanish into South America meant their genes spread rapidly into decimated indigenous tribes, and eventually to the most remote peoples. The inhabitants of the minuscule Pingelap and Mokil atolls in the mid-Pacific have incorporated Europeans into their gene pools after they were discovered in the years of the nineteenth century. Even religiously isolated groups such as the Samaritans, who number fewer than 800 and are sequestered within Israel, have elected to outbreed in order to expand their limited gene pool.
Rutherford at 164.
So go back less than 4,000 years, and there’s some anonymous man or woman from whom every person alive can claim descent. It’s kind of mind-blowing.
There is no simple, linear descent of humans. Human genealogy is inherently a net, a web, that reaches all around the world much more speedily than we tend to assume.
Likewise, to bring it back around to the Enneagram, there is no pure, arcane, secret tradition. People, and ideas, don’t work like that. There is change and exchange and learning and borrowing and mixing and syncretizing. And that’s generally good.
Just as “no population is known to have remained isolated over a sustained period of time,” ideas don’t tend to idle intact within secret brotherhoods, nor do languages sit immobile in faraway mountain hollers. Change, not stability, is the story.
And in my view, the fact of the Enneagram of Personality being relatively new is what makes it so valuable. If the system is fixed, then it is no one’s–it is unaccountable and inflexible to new insights and new generations’ shifting perspectives. If it refers back to an ancient brotherhood, who’s to say what it is? What it’s not?
Instead, I vote that we recognize–and celebrate–the new origins of this old thing. This new quilt made from various semi-old rags. It’s a solution that gives us some of the romance of the old, and some of the novelty of the new. That’s about as good as we can do.