Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Euphemism Treadmill and Intellectual Disability

Stephen Pinker coined the term "euphemism treadmill" to describe how terms, originally coined to replace terms that have a perjorative connotation, eventually become perjorative as well.  There are several examples of this that we can cite.

Take the area of intellectual deficiency.  As knowledge of this condition increased, and possible means of intervention were being developed, it became useful to distinguish different degrees of deficiency.  Hence, moron, imbecile, and idiot.

At one time, the terms "moron," "imbecile," and "idiot" had specific meaning.  Morons had a mental age between 8 and 12 or an IQ in the 51-70), imbeciles had IQs in the 25-50 range, and idiots had IQs below 25.  Because those terms came to be used loosely as insults or other non-diagnostic usage, in the 1960s the American "Asociation on Mental Deficiency adopted a four-category classification system:

Mild retardation             IQs between 50 and 69
Moderate retardation    IQs between 35 and 49
Severe retardation        IQs between 20 and 34
Profound retardation     IQs below 20

Older terminology used to refer to specific syndromes also changed:  cretinism became infantile hypothyroidism and mongolism became Down's syndrome.

Indeed, the term used collectively to refer to this type of disability has changed.  Once, it was known as "feeblemindedness"; but mental retardation was substituted as an euphemism.  However, in recent years, there was been a push to substitute "intellectual disability" for mental retardation.  In 2010, President Obama signed Senate Bill 2781, which changed references in Federal statutes from mental retadation to intellectual disability.

My guess is that people, in their mania to dysphemize, will eventually turn intellectual disability into an insult.  Politicians, the media, academics, and good old-fashioned perverseness will provide the fuel for that linguistic change.


MarkD60 said...

That means an imbecile could aspire to become a moron. If you study hard, and get good grades and learn things...

Mike said...

I sure there are people calling other people intellectually disabled as insults already.

Bilbo said...

Intellectual disability is on daily display in Congress and much of the pundit class, and it's a real insult to imbeciles, morons, and idiots.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, now that I know what the official replacement for retard is, i'm totally going to start using 'intellectually disabled' as a cutdown. Imagine "ID, ID!" Word taboos are stupid. I would never make fun of a real retarded person, only normal people who are dumb or acting dumb or things on TV which are pretty much all dumb. thanks for the interesting article, I knew the campaign to end the R-word was retarded from the start.