When learning a new language, there’s always the inadvertent chance of saying something inappropriate or offensive, mostly because euphemisms and politeness are hardly ever direct translations. Dictionaries will tell you both the nice words and the not nice words, without a characterization of their emotional quality.

There’s a phenomenon, coined as “euphemism treadmill” by Steven Pinker (further described in his book “The Language Instinct”) in which one euphemism becomes outmoded and is replaced by a new one.  This could probably even be time-lined, and it certainly happens faster with issues that are hot.  ref 1 ref 2  As Pinker states- “We know we will have achieved equality and mutual respect when terms for ethnic minorities stay put.”

We all know how quickly polite words for race, ethnicity, abilities & sexual orientation change.  I’d guess it’s nearly every ten years.   The hotter, or more sensitive a topic is, the quicker the words change.

The instinct to update the words to be something more polite can be viewed in a few contexts.  A ‘true’ construct is that of the natural evolution of language.  A ‘false’ construct is that premise of:  if the words change, the sensitivity of the subject will be diminished.  What seems to be actually happening is, as Pinker points out, a word that is generally agreed to be polite in one decade, starts to become an impolite word or even a slur over time, because the underlying issues behind the nomination of a ‘polite word’ in the first place have not changed.

This is why in English, of the color words and scientific words for race, only white and caucasian have maintained a mostly neutral level-  because, in English, they are not usually the terms for minorities ( ← minorities is also a bad word now, according to some.)

We need words to talk about sensitive issues (race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc.)  The subjects are real, and thus must have words to point at them.  

Example 1:  in the 1980s and early 90s, the word ‘Oriental’ was the polite term to refer to people from China, Japan, and South East Asia.  Now, that word is considered impolite, being replaced by the non-specific and inaccurate Asian (Russians are Asians, Indians are Asians, but that’s not who the English word refers to.)

It becomes especially funny to think about euphemisms when you learn other languages.  In Arabic, the word oriental (sharaqee) is polite, taught in schools (including in the US), and means to the east or easterly.  In Arabic, an Orientalist is one who studies the Middle East…. One could go down a rabbit hole just thinking about the terms Middle East and Far East, since they are obviously from an English language or at least European perspective. (but the term Middle East –  Assharaq Al’awasT -is common, polite, and normal in Arabic.)

Example 2:  my Arabic teacher warned me that using the word ‘aswad (black) to refer to someone’s race is really impolite in Arabic.  Instead, you use the word ‘asmar, which is the word you use to describe the color of brown bread.  I explained back, that in English, “brown” is often used to refer to people from Middle Asia or North Africa.  (I’m under the impression that word is moderately polite, though, being removed from academia, I’m not sure what the latest word fashion actually is.)

My sense is, unlike America, the use of hyphenated terms (Irish-American, African-American, Iraqi-American) to imply race/ ethnicity is really uncommon in other countries, to the point of being confusing.  (interesting history here–  I’m surprised by how controversial this idea was even in the early 1900s.)

For instance, in America, the polite term now is African-American, to the point where, I’m sure, many white Americans struggle over which term to use politely to refer to people of African descent who are not American and not living in America.  Imagine having this conversation in Egypt, where most native people are not ‘asmar.  One can’t really refer to people from south of the Sahara, now living in Egypt, as “African-Egyptians”!

Example 3: which is an Arabic idiom about race, but funny, at least to me:  I was talking with a female friend who is from Iraq. She was describing certain religious artwork from the Arabian Peninsula, and how silly it was that they painted pictures of the religious figure as looking European.  “with light skin and a pushed-up nose” -she pressed her thumb against her nose as she said this, making the English-language gesture for a stuck-up person.  Which is what I thought she meant at first, but as she kept talking, clarifying herself so as not to possibly offend me, I realized she was most likely describing an Arabic language idiom for noses that look European.


One thing I love about language learning is the mystery.  Of never really knowing what exactly the subtext of the conversation is, and having to do mental summersaults and lots of guessing to keep up.

Posted by:Brook DeLorme

2 replies on “Language : on sensitive subjects

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s