Saturday, April 21, 2007

Semantic Conundrums

So I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Euphemisms, and I came across an interesting point: the phrase "crippled" is not inherently more derogatory than the phrase "handicapped" or "handi-capable" or whatever your PC term of choice is. In fact, other more euphemistic phrases minght be, objectively speaking, more perjorative, because to say someone is "crippled" (or "deaf" or "visually-impaired") is to describe them as having one characteristic, whithout commenting on their other characteristics. Conversely, to call someone "differently abled" or say "wheelchair dependant" is, seemingly, to limit the range of characteristics he or she might have.

In the early 1960s, Bill Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, argued against the then-favored euphemism "handicapped", saying he preferred "crippled" because it was merely descriptive and did not carry connotations of limiting one's capability the way "handicapped" (and all of its subsequent euphemisms) seemed to do.

It's semantic, sure, but I love semantics. And I've always felt that some of the terms which have taken on (and sometimes lost) credence in my lifetime are silly.

For instance, I can see why we don't call people "Indians". European explorers thought they'd arrived in India, and so called the people Indians, and they were very wrong. Okay. But why can't we use "Native" anymore? I suppose I understand the argument from ambiguity--as a seventh-generation Canadian, aren't I also native?--but that would seem to be cleared up by the use of the capital N. Besides which, the same ambiguity crops up with the use of "indigenous", and I can't shake the feeling that "aboriginal" is inextricably connected to "aboriginee" and other derogatory terms used against native/indigenous/aboriginal Australians.

It would be ideal of course if we could refer to people by their specific origin (tribe or nation) when appropriate, but there is no denying a commonality of experience amongst "First Nations", and also amongst an un-named category which includes the First Nations as well as the Inuit, Metis, et cetera. True, we don't want people to be limited by the labels we apply, but the fact is that to discuss anything we need words for it. And the labels must be accurate, first and foremost.

Coined by Winston Churchill campaigning in the 1906 election, and repeated by him in the parliament,

The conditions of the Transvaal ordinance ... cannot in the opinion of His Majesty's Government be classified as slavery in the extreme acceptance of the word without some risk of terminological inexactitude. — in the parliament 22 February 1906 (quoted in Nigel Rees, Sayings of the Century, 1984)

This first usage has only the literal sense of inaccurate terminology, but it was almost immediately taken up as a euphemism meaning an outright lie.


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