When did we lose the ability to laugh at the linguistic changes coming at us at an ever-increasing pace?
I had intended to write a column on how some of the language we use these days can be difficult for older folks like me to assimilate. I recall how, in the 1970s, we all could have a chuckle over “political correctness,” whether we were coming from the left, right or somewhere in between.
But when I asked on Facebook for examples of “modern-day euphemisms” that readers felt had perhaps gone too far, I opened a spigot of social media venom that has yet to be closed. To which I feel obligated to say:
“Guys, you’re taking this all too seriously! I just wanted to have a spot of fun.”
The trigger for my latest lexical exploration came when I was listening to a podcast during which, in the course of an episode discussing various aspects of parenting, the host never once used the word “mother.” Instead, it was “birthing person.”
I understand the reasoning: In an age when a trans man may still have the physical equipment to give birth, “mother” may not be an inclusive enough term.
It seems, however, that my age may finally be catching up with me. I’m finding it difficult to close the generation gap.
I’m not alone in my perturbation.
“What about women who cannot give birth or who have adopted, fostered or used a surrogate? ‘Birthing person’ excludes them,” wrote several similarly “mature” commentators to my Facebook query.
“It’s best not to label someone at all. Refer to them by function,” another person helpfully offered. So, rather than use “male” or “man,” instead say, “a person who could get testicular cancer.”
Isn’t this all really a form of kindness, asked Josh, “seeing people as they are and not using labels that render them invisible?”
Perhaps I protest too much?
But then I read about several developments that had me stretching my euphemistically befuddled brain. Such as the latest pronouncement from WPATH, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, that there’s a new gender identity that must be supported – the eunuch – complete with freely chosen castration.
Or as Andrew Sullivan, host of the popular Dishcast radio program, points out, look at the latest statement from the Human Rights Campaign that one should feel free to identify however one wishes, even if that’s as a “tree” or a “fish.”
WHETHER YOU’RE sniggering sympathetically or stifling simmering outrage, politically correct euphemisms have always been designed to obfuscate the uncomfortable realities lurking underneath.
That’s how “double mastectomy” becomes “top surgery” or a “chest-masculinization” procedure. It’s how what was once called a “sex change” is now a “gender-confirming” operation.
Modern-age euphemisms are not exclusive to gender issues.
“War” gets repositioned as a “campaign” or an “intervention.” (Russia is particularly guilty of weaponizing this euphemism, although Israel doesn’t escape notice, either.)
“Healthy” could be construed as a microaggression for someone who’s not. So, let’s replace it, some suggest, with “temporarily abled.” (Being “temporarily cancer-free” isn’t particularly reassuring.)
“Cultural appropriation” may be the grandfather of 21st-century newspeak. What was once a laudable goal – the melting pot, where a heady mix of cultures leads to all kinds of delightful instances of “fusion,” from food to art – has been transformed into an approbation.
In 2016 I wrote about an Oberlin College student who criticized campus food services for preparing a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with ciabatta bread instead of a baguette, and coleslaw instead of pickled vegetables.
There was also the cancellation of a longstanding yoga class taught by a non-Indian woman at York University in Toronto. The instructor, Jennifer Scharf, who had been offering the class for free for seven years, offered to rename it “mindful stretching.”
Her proposal was rejected.
US college campuses have seen their share of anti-Israel protests over the years. But don’t call it antisemitism. Anti-Zionism is now the “kosher” alternative for Jew haters who don’t want to be called out on their bigotry and racism.
To wit: UC Berkeley’s School of Law passed a bylaw banning “Zionist” speakers from its events on campus. Beyond the quad, US Representative Rashida Tlaib warned that support for Israel is antithetical to being “progressive.” To which Representative Ritchie Torres of New York tweeted, “There is nothing progressive about advocating the end of Israel.”
Find “pedophiles” upsetting? Don’t worry, that’s been cleaned up – they’re now “minor-attracted persons.”
A program for older adults was once phased out due to “natural disenrollment.” That is, the participants died.
To be fair, I’ve not been immune to political correctness. I once posed for a picture in front of a poster that read “Power to the Sandinistas” during my own studies at Oberlin. I doubt I had any knowledge of what the Sandinistas were all about (they were the socialist rulers of Nicaragua who battled the US-backed Contras in the early 1980s).
Now, before you “OK Boomer me” for being hopelessly out of touch, can we accept that the pace and breadth of these changes in language are coming too fast for my and many of my peers’ set-in-our-ways, middle-aged brains to grok?
We want to be upstanding, woke citizens of the world, but maybe we’ll have to settle for something more achievable: to simply be a good person struggling to make sense of a rapidly radicalizing world, with mild chortles where appropriate.
Here’s one change I think we can all get behind: Renaming “mailman” as “person person.” (OK, seriously, that would be “postal carrier.”)
It’s at least worth a sly grin.
The writer’s book Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com