Opinion | Each Day, We’re Informed to Use New Lingo. What Does That Actually Accomplish?


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Opinion | Every Day, We’re Told to Use New Lingo. What Does That Really Accomplish?


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I believe additionally of Nina Simone’s musicalization of Lorraine Hansberry’s phrase “To be young, gifted and Black.” Watch Simone carry out this track in Questlove’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Summer of Soul,” together with her vocal emphasis, filled with conviction, on the phrase “Black.” Singing “African American” wouldn’t — couldn’t — ring with the identical richness. Black America added which means to and wrested pleasure out of a phrase that was presupposed to have destructive connotations by considering of ourselves as stunning and decided. I’m unsure “African American,” simply as a time period, has furthered that in any respect: “To be young, gifted and African American”?

Keep in mind, too, the “euphemism treadmill” described by the Harvard College psychology professor Steven Pinker, who defined in a 1994 Occasions Opinion essay: “People invent new ‘polite’ words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations.” For instance, the pathway from “crippled” to “handicapped” to “disabled” to “differently abled.” New phrases finally don’t depart freighted concepts behind; they merely take them on.

Take into account the phrase “urban renewal.” Beginning within the Nineteen Thirties, there have been initiatives in American cities to raze working-class, typically Black neighborhoods. They might finally get replaced with numerous civic tasks, comparable to new freeway building. One time period for this, embraced by metropolis planning éminences grises such as Robert Moses in New York Metropolis, was “slum clearance.”

Because the years handed, the downsides of this destruction of modest however cohesive communities grew to become extra obvious, and the time period “slum clearance” was steadily supplanted by the time period “urban renewal,” beginning in the 1950s. However calling it city renewal didn’t persuade a variety of writers, thinkers and displaced residents to have fun this harmful dislocation. Aside from by, maybe, some metropolis planners, city renewal was more and more perceived as a glum enterprise — the identical enterprise — as slum clearance. James Baldwin memorably coined it with the extra reality-based time period, “Negro removal.”

Even when factoring in Pinker’s treadmill, I perceive the impulse to seek advice from “enslaved people” fairly than “slaves” — not all new terminology is pointless. Describing somebody as a “slave” could be taken as indicating that servitude is an inherent trait fairly than an imposed situation. However I believe that after some time, the time period “enslaved person” will proceed its lexical drift and we’ll want a brand new time period. Why? Due to what occurred to “homeless person,” which started as an enlightened alternative for phrases comparable to “bum” and “bag lady,” however is now itself being slowly changed by referring to somebody who's “unhoused.”


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