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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Euphemism Turns Pejorative Begets Euphemism

Abstract: In this essay, I discuss the possibility that a shift in thought caused white Americans to adopt a historically new terminology. The shift as a phenomenon can be described as follows: Euphemism became pejorative created euphemism. This argument is similar to the “Euphemism Treadmill” idea proposed by W. V. Quine, and later coined by Steven Pinker. I propose a different mechanism however, in which this thought-language shift is created by linguistic politeness, specifically where the historical use of the word “Negro” became increasingly a "face threatening act", and was eventually replaced. I conclude that a linguistic change in the late 1960s was primarily a consequence and reflection of a shift in thought as a result of the events of history. 

[A] new teaching is taking place and there is new thinking among the so-called Negroes. Yet just yesterday you would have to admit that it was very difficult to get our people to refer to themselves as black. Now all of a sudden our people of all complexions are not apologizing for being black but bragging about being black. So there's a new thinking all over America among the so-called Negroes.[1]                                                                                
In the late 1960s, a major shift took place in the English lexicon among the American populace. The word “Negroes”, long used among both African Americans and whites to refer to the former, was no longer an acceptable term. In its place expressions like “the black man”, “blacks”, and “black people” became the conventional euphemisms, “negroes” presumably becoming too closely associated with the word “nigger” to be allowable. Even “niggardly”, originating in the 1600s in Scandinavia to mean miserly or stingy, became obsolete for the same reason.[2] But was this shift in terminology (among whites) a direct result of black civil rights leaders in a linguistic drive to eliminate the intolerable, or was there a more underlying trend that even these leaders were following? While it was only natural for Malcolm X to attribute the change in thinking (cited above) to the Nation of Islam movement which he, at that time, belonged to, the factuality (or lack thereof) of such a claim is not the focus of this paper. It is instead an argument for linguistic change as a consequence and reflection of a shift in thought, causing whites too to adopt the new terminology. The effect of this shift can be described as follows: Euphemism becomes pejorative creates euphemism. The mechanism for this thought shift is linguistic politeness, specifically the face threatening acts.

Source: Davies, Mark. TIME Magazine Corpus. Note: The singular terms “black”, “colored” and “African American” are both nouns, as individuals, and also adjectives describing individuals. As adjectives, many subjects other than individuals are found in the TIME Corpus when using “black” and “colored” (such as black clouds or colored printing). “Colored” has therefore been abandoned and, holding strictly to ethnic groups as nouns, the plural “blacks”, “negroes” and “African Americans” have been used as a basis of comparison. The term “African Americans” is represented in the information both with and without a hyphen.

The dramatic shift in language use becomes apparent when we examine the online TIME Magazine Corpus[3] in the graph above. A slight rise from the 1940-50s in the use of the terms “negroes” and “blacks” follows the historical situation after World War II, when the civil rights of many African American war veterans were being violated.[4] Relative to corpus size, both terms then double in usage in the 1960s as the civil rights movement comes to the fore on the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. But the trend is completely broken between the 1960s and 1970s, one term completely replacing the other.
It is here that analysis of Malcolm X’s speech is illuminating. Although the introductory quote by him (above) may at first hint at a conscious effort to redefine language, and with it thought, there is a substantial problem with this idea. Phrases such as “so-called negroes”, indicating deliberation in his choice of words, are used quite frequently in this speech, but in it he also defines “blacks” as “all those who are non-white,” while “whites” are “a race of devils”,[5] definitions never adopted by a magazine catering primarily to a white audience. In fact, such divisive language might have led to an increased solidification of terms as they already stood. A more thorough analysis (below) of 1963, the year of his speech, reveals an increase in white use of the word “negroes”, though much of this can be due, again, to the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Keep in mind that TIME magazine was authored at that time primarily by whites and for a white audience, the majority of the American public. This is indicated by viewing individual topics in the TIME Corpus, where blacks are consistently discussed as an “other”, and by an out-group, i.e. whites.

Source: Davies, Mark. TIME Magazine Corpus. Note: Because corpus size is not known for each individual year, frequency, rather than words per million, is shown.

A look at Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail,[6] from the same period, is also revealing in that thirty-four times Dr. King refers to African Americans as Negroes, with a mere five times as blacks, three cases of which are in reference to the Black Nationalism of Malcolm X. In this letter of 1963, it is clear that he is using the same terms as the white majority, making no insistence upon a change of language. Martin Luther King was following the same trends of public discourse. So this is not a simple case of civil rights leaders deliberately carrying both blacks and whites over into a new terminology.
Not only was there a rise in discussion in 1963, but during the period from 1967 to 1968 (the last year of King’s life) the discussion among whites in TIME Magazine increases, and with it both terms are used more frequently. But it is here in 1968, when King is assassinated, that the word “negroes” begins its sudden decline. In 1969 the word is used about half as often as 1968, with “blacks” correspondingly doubling in use, implicating Martin Luther King’s death as the turning point in the language.
Having discussed how civil rights leaders were not directly responsible for the shift in language, and in fact were following the same linguistic trend themselves, it is the mechanism for this shift that now needs attention. Brown and Levinson, in their book Politeness, Some universals in language usage,[7] cite several aspects in language that threaten the “face” of other individuals. These face-threatening acts in turn cause individuals to alter their speech to avoid, minimize or baldly accentuate such threats. This altered speech is termed politeness.[8] In their systematic classification of speech acts which threaten face, they mention several categories of behavior that apply to the situation at hand, such as: threats and warnings, promises (and the loss of face either in not carrying it out, or in the indebtedness to return the favor), disapproval, criticism, contempt, ridicule, accusations, insults, challenges, expression of violent emotions, discussion of volatile and divisive topics like race, and the use of status-marked terms.[9]
Up until Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, both whites and blacks referred to the latter as “negroes”. As a term it was increasingly being associated with all of these face-threatening acts. So much of the discussion in the corpus is about criminality, insult, broken promises and an oppressed people. It was becoming more derisive and charged. The use of the word was evoking more and more emotion. King had legitimately won one more step in the road to equal rights yet, with his assassination, a real shift in thinking was solidified. His death was a turning point in history. The word “negroes” became history. It was a stratum of the scaffolding of the impolite past, a record of what used to be. The term lost favor among whites because civil rights leaders, despite their own uses of the word, really did shift the white majority’s thinking about African Americans. With that shift, “negroes” became associated with “niggers”, and a new line of thinking about “blacks” began.
The term “negroes” began as a euphemism for the more pejorative “colored,”[10] and in the end became a pejorative itself. “Blacks” became the new euphemism for the pejorative “negroes”, though it is showing signs of decreased use. In this connection, the term “African American” has throughout this paper been used intentionally. In the first graph above, the term “blacks” too has been in decline, but more importantly, that it has gone into decline since “African Americans” gained more popularity in the 1990s. In the 2000s, “African Americans” does fall in frequency, but this is accounted for by a strong decrease in racial topics (directed towards blacks) directly after September 11, lowering the average for the six year record (2000-2005). It is difficult at this date however to determine if “blacks” is itself becoming pejorative, and “African Americans” will sometime fully replace it. Some may argue that President Barack Obama identifying himself as “black” will prevent the word from becoming pejorative. In a recent speech for example, while campaigning for the Presidency, he referred to himself and family members as “black”, “black American”, or “African American”.[11] But like King, his terminology will play little role in the fate of those very terms. It is the type of thinking and behavior he can inspire in his hearers which will consequently affect the language we all use. And it is the association those words have with civil strife, even if now the battle takes place on more refined levels than in the past, which will cause the majority to abandon them for new terms. The cycle of “euphemism turns pejorative begets euphemism” will likely only cease when sensitivity about discussing race (which is racism) does too.

[Author’s note: Since completing this research project, I have gone back into the old data and found various shifts in language use. Among these are the related words to the current essay, where Colored gets replaced by Negro. It is still too early to tell as far as the term African American in its potential drive to replace Black as the normative term.
[I have also noted that words such as retarded, mentally challenged, idiots, etc, have gone through a roughly similar process. Words concerning the handicapped or disabled (once termed invalid) have also gone through this process.
[There is even such an occupational case, where the terms janitor, cleaner and custodian replace one another. (I was aware of this one from my own humble beginnings as a cleaner, sometime joking that I was a "custodial engineer".) It is assumption, but I suspect that this shift in normative usage has to do with politeness and the occupation’s relation to the underclass and to particular minority groups. There is built up around this particular occupation a stigma (in the majority, or higher class) that causes them to feel that calling someone janitor rather than cleaner is a face threatening act.
[However, none of these later cases mentioned above change dramatically like the fast shift in language associated with the King assassination. This was a unique circumstance. These other shifts show very slow and gradual shifts over a period of a decade or more. One reason for this may be that they are not as highly charged as race is, and therefore do not become face threatening pejoratives as quickly as did the term Negro.
[I have not yet looked at various terms as they relate to gender, such as miss, misses, madam or lady, doll, woman, etc. I suspect these too are charged. Though there are an equal number of women to men in the United States, unlike blacks to whites (i.e., they are not minorities), yet these terms may have been charged (and therefore lost favor as socially acceptable) because, society being patriarchal, they were normative.]

[1] X, Malcolm, The Black Man’s History, December, 1962 (edited by Imam Benjamin Karim)., Retrieved April 1, 2009, 11:11 AM, <>
[2] See for example White, Jack E., The Other N Word, TIME Magazine, Monday, Feb. 08, 1999, available online at,9171,990183,00.html.
[3] Davies, Mark. (2007-) TIME Magazine Corpus (100 million words, 1920s-2000s). Available online at
[4] McCullough, David, Truman (New York, 1993), p. 587.
[5] X, Malcolm, The Black Man’s History.
[6] King, Martin Luther, Why We Can’t Wait (1964), pp. 64-84.
[7] Brown, Penelope & Levinson, Stephen C., Politeness, Some universals in language usage (New York, 1987).
[8] See Brown & Levinson, pp. 59-65.
[9] While this is only a partial list of even those relevant face threatening acts, it serves its purpose as a strong statement of the highly charged situation. See Brown & Levinson, pp. 65-68 for the authors’ complete list of face threatening acts.
[10] See for example (though hardly limited to) the charged article “We are insulted”, TIME Magazine, Monday, June 09, 1930, online at,9171,739449,00.html.
[11] See for example a transcript of Obama’s speech refuting Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s comments on race at