Euphemism Treadmill

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A euphemism is the substitution of an uncontroversial phrase for a more frank expression that might offend or otherwise suggest something unpleasant to the audience. Euphemisms often evolve over time into taboo words, through a process described by American philosopher W.V.O. Quine, and more recently dubbed the ‘euphemism treadmill‘ by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, and discussed in his books ‘The Blank Slate’ (2003) and ‘The Stuff of Thought’ (2007).

This is the well-known linguistic process known as ‘pejoration’ or ‘semantic change.’ Words originally intended as euphemisms may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotations of their referents. In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become the opposite of euphemisms, ‘dysphemisms.’ Euphemisms related to disabilities have been prone to this. In his remarks on the ever-changing London slang, made in ‘Down and Out’ in Paris and London, George Orwell mentioned both the euphemism treadmill and the dysphemism treadmill. He did not use these now-established terms, but observed and commented on the respective processes as early as in 1933.

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