Language Notes #1: The Museum of Taboo Terminology

Why is it that certain words, once considered perfectly acceptable, eventually come to be regarded as taboo? I think of this whenever I hear someone refer to ‘disabled’ people or people ‘of colour’ and I recall how, not so very long ago, it was thought to be OK to refer to ‘handicapped’ people or ‘coloured’ people. After all, there’s nothing intrinsically offensive in the words ‘handicapped’ or ‘coloured’. Indeed, those words were coined precisely because they were felt to be inoffensive. So why are they now taboo?

Or take another example: IQ tests once came with a scale for grading intelligence, a scale running all the way from ‘imbecile’, ‘cretin’ and ‘moron’ through to ‘genius’. I remember seeing such a scale in Hans Eysenck’s book of IQ tests back in the 1960s. ‘Imbecile’, ‘cretin’ and ‘moron’ were originally quasi-medical terms, as were later terms such as ‘retarded’ – a word that has always struck me as deeply inoffensive in its intended sense, since it simply meant ‘delayed’ or ‘late to develop’ – and ‘educationally sub-normal’ (ESN) and ‘special needs’. Yet none of these terms is any longer considered acceptable.

The conclusion is inescapable: words such as those mentioned above have a limited shelf life, a built-in obsolescence. For a while they’re permissible, even encouraged. But eventually, inevitably, they begin to be used in contexts where they carry negative connotations, and from there it’s only a short step to becoming terms of abuse. They have to be replaced.

This is happening right now with the growing currency of words such as ‘BAME’ or ‘non-binary’ or the alphabet soup of ‘LGBTQ+’ in discussions of ethnicity and gender and sexual orientation. How long before terms like ‘gay’ and ‘transgender’ and ‘of colour’ become as anachronistic and taboo as their predecessors and must be ruthlessly expunged? And how long before their replacements themselves need to be replaced?

Language evolves, we all know that. New words, like new species, emerge, have their moment in the sun and finally become extinct, ending their days in historical dictionaries like fossils in museums of natural history. In other words, as long as there is a negative valorization of people who are gay or disabled or from ethnic minorities, the terms used to denote such individuals will inevitably acquire similarly negative associations. Language, alas, can never be value-free.

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