4 Offensive Words That Started Out as the Polite Alternative
Euphemisms are words and phrases we use when we want to avoid saying something naughty or unpleasant to think about. For example, "choking the chicken," which on the surface sounds like a beautiful, natural act, is actually a description of something that is pretty disgusting.
Unless you do it properly, in which case it's beautiful and disgusting.
But even though we use a euphemism so we don't have to say a naughty word, everyone understands that the euphemism means exactly what the word it replaced meant, and it quickly takes on all the same connotations, becoming just as offensive itself. Eventually many euphemisms become so offensive that they have to get replaced by new ones, a process that has been called the "euphemism treadmill" by people who went to better schools than you or me. The end result of this is a list of words that sound pretty offensive to our ears but were at one point perfect examples of sensitivity and political correctness.
OK, I'll admit it: "Toilet" isn't that offensive. But in North America, at least, it does sound a bit uncouth, getting a little too close and personal with the act you're going to be performing in there, and if you casually mention in conversation that you're going to the toilet, people will look at you funny.
"Ohhhhh kay. I guess? Give 'em hell."
People have always been discreet about the language they use when discussing where we put our poops, and history is full of examples of turd-based euphemisms. "Chamber pot" is a pretty fancy term for a poop tin, the same way that "bog" is a pretty harmless-sounding name for a poop pit. "Commode," "privy," and "night soil" all have similar etymologies.
"Aboveground manual turd removal! Hot, fresh aboveground manual turd removal!"
Every couple decades or so, a new word comes up to describe the place we leave our leavings. In some cases, like "water closet" or "toilet," we had to describe a physical device that was perhaps deserving of a new name. But even though we're now describing a device and a room that haven't changed in design or function for a century, that hasn't stopped the parade of increasingly delicate words that have been coined to describe it. Bathroom. Washroom. Restroom. Have you ever rested in a restroom? What the fuck, man? There's a line!
Are ... are you eating in there?
How long will it be before "bathroom" sounds crass to our ears and we change it to "business room" or "pudding depository"?
That's a serious suggestion, by the way. Make it happen, society.
A couple turns of the century ago, "idiot," "imbecile," and "moron" were specific, tightly defined scientific terms used to describe people with below-average intelligence. It wasn't until the 1970s or so that they were replaced by "mentally retarded," mainly because by that point "idiot," "imbecile," and "moron" had become generalized insults lobbed at anyone the speaker wanted to mock.
"You, sir, have an IQ less than 50, but not below 35!"
But as you may have noticed, "retarded" isn't an acceptable term anymore either. Although it was originally a kinder way of describing someone with learning difficulties, the exact same process that led to "idiot," "imbecile," and "moron" becoming insults also caused "retarded" to become an insult. And when the label that people use to describe you is used as an insult when applied to anyone else, that's pretty god-damned insulting.
"That guy's such a Dan."
Now we use terms like "mentally challenged," "learning disabled," or "special needs" to describe the same people, and we can only hope humanity has the wisdom to not turn those into insults as well.
We just probably shouldn't bet money on it.
Referring to someone with a physical disability as "crippled" sounds pretty harsh to our modern ears, but for a long, long time that was the best and only way to describe someone who had lost a limb or was otherwise physically impaired, mainly because for a long, long time we didn't know that people had feelings.
"You, sir, are an ugly person."
"That hurts me."
"I don't know."
But eventually someone realized that calling someone "crippled" was a bit harsh and not wholly accurate; certain injuries or conditions might impair someone without crippling them. And so sometime around the early 20th century the term "handicapped" appeared, with the meaning that those so afflicted were carrying an extra burden that the rest of us didn't.
"You, sir, are deficient at looking good."
"That's better, I guess."
That word more or less lingers around to this day, although you probably have noticed that it's slowly being phased out. "Handicapped" focuses pretty harshly on the negative, perhaps unfairly so. After all, if someone's impairment isn't a big factor in their life, if they're good at lots of other things that aren't walking, why does the one label they're routinely tagged with focus on the thing they can't do? Think about yourself. You'd probably prefer to be known as an "accountant," or "husband," or "gamer," and in most contexts people will generally call you that, instead of a label that focuses on the one thing you're not good at.
Like a "gets winded climbing up the stairs spaghetti-person."
"Physically disabled" is the preferred term now, although, as far as I can see, that has basically the exact same problem, which is probably why you now see a few people floating terms like "differently abled" and the like. More changes are coming, I'm sure, and honestly, given how cruel the world can be sometimes, we should be prepared to call these people whatever they want, up to and including not calling them by a label at all. (When the circumstances permit it, I find that calling someone by their name is a good trick.)
"You, sir, are Theodore."
"I am, aren't I!"
If you hear someone casually toss around the word "Negro" now, you can be pretty sure you're talking to a racist or a time traveler.
I suppose the time traveler could be racist, too.
But it wasn't always a horribly offensive word, and to see how, let's actually go back a step and start with the word that preceded it. "Colored" sounds incredibly dated and offensive to us now, but that wasn't always the case. It used to be one of the more civil terms used to describe black people; it's what the U.S. government itself used on their census forms. Also, consider that when an organization dedicated to the advancement of black people's rights was choosing a name for itself around the turn of the century, they went with "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People," because "colored" was the most positive description generally used at the time (among a sea of some pretty horrible negative ones, no doubt).
"Can't say that, can't say that, or that, or ... holy shit, history."
"Colored" faded away in the 1920s when prominent black leaders advocated switching the preferred term to "Negro," and for the middle decades of the 20th century, this was the term most black people themselves preferred. A similar debate by black leaders in the 1960s resulted in the switch from "Negro" to "black," which is what we now more or less use today.
Fun fact: "Negro" remained on official census forms all the way up until the year two-thousand-god-damned-thirteen.
In the 1980s, the term "African-American" was introduced, and it caught on a bit but never fully displaced "black," which suggests that "black" might be here awhile. That's good news for all the old people out there who seem most prone to tripping up on the racial labels these euphemism treadmills keep spitting out.
"You meant an Oriental rug, right, Grandpa?"
You can sort of see Crazy Racist Grandpa's side of the issue here. He's using the polite, sensitive word he was taught to use when growing up, and he simply didn't know that the world had changed around him.
"You should have heard what my grandpa called them, boy."
But on the other hand, the words we use matter, and if people are predictably going to be insulted or humiliated by the things you say, that's on you, not them. It doesn't take much to keep track of what words are going to be insulting or humiliating; "Negro" and "Oriental" haven't been acceptable for a long time now, which you would have picked up on if you'd read a newspaper or spoken to another human being in the past couple decades.
"Yeah, but then I might have to change my opinion about some things."
Still, this weird quirk of euphemism cycling is something worth remembering the next time Grandma says something insane at Thanksgiving. It might not just be because she's a huge bigot. She could have simply checked out of the civilized world a few decades ago.
Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and is terrified he messed up somewhere while writing this and accidentally offended several billion people. Join him on Facebook or Twitter to express your outrage.