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Posted Apr 22, 2021 - 1:52pm

By Lance McLemore, PRC-Saltillo Blogger

One of my favorite comedians is George Carlin. I admire his very blunt, scathing, and witty social commentary. He has a very funny routine in which he lambasts the use of soft language.

In his routine, George talks about how our use of language changes over time. It gets sanitized and diluted. The lexicon of the average person is so convoluted and riddled with euphemisms and obfuscations that it seems to be a miracle that we can communicate at all. What I find especially irritating is all the euphemisms that are used to describe people with disabilities.

  • Special needs rather than handicapped
  • Cognitively disabled or mentally challenged rather than retarded
  • Visually impaired rather than blind
  • Seizure disorder rather than epilepsy
  • Hansen’s disease rather than leprosy
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder rather than shellshock

The examples of soft convoluted language are legion. I understand why people use this language; they do it ostensibly to be kind and compassionate. However, I’m not convinced that it’s entirely about kindness. For example, why is it kinder or more compassionate to say seizure disorder instead of epilepsy? Is the word “epilepsy” cruel or derisive in some way that escapes my understanding? What’s the reason for creating this newer label, i.e. seizure disorder? As I see it, it’s a distinction without a difference. Perhaps it’s the connotations associated with the word “epilepsy” that bother people, so they create a new term to create an emotional buffer; maybe “seizure disorder” doesn’t sound as scary or doesn’t carry the same emotional baggage as “epilepsy.” I suspect that a similar thought process happens with other words.

Ultimately, I think the use of euphemisms and soft language is driven by fear. We are afraid of something, and thus we are afraid of the word that it represents. Eventually people change the word so that it seems less scary and more palatable, but this is completely pointless. You haven’t fundamentally changed anything. All you have done is diluted the language, obscured, and run from the truth. You can dress up a pig in a dress and lipstick, but it’s still a pig. Only the wrapping has changed. A blind person is not less blind because you call them visually impaired. As an autistic person, I’m already cringing as I wait for the next word that’s going to replace “autism.”

As an AAC user, I’m intensely conscious at all times of my use of language. It’s important to me that I speak plainly and directly at all times, because it’s faster and easier. And as labels change, they tend to get longer and more convoluted. As I said previously, I know that people have the best of intentions: they want to be kind and sensitive. However, I think clarity of thought, clarity of expression, simplicity, and directness should take precedence over kindness and sensitivity. I know that languages evolve over time, and I’m not saying that that evolution should be artificially constrained. I’m not saying that some terms shouldn’t change. I’m also not saying that there shouldn’t be some balancing of sensitivity and clarity of expression. However, people need to rediscover common sense, logic, and toughen up a little.  

Communicators In Action  -    language, politically correct, communication, labels, disability