I was at the Queens Library the other day, and I saw a section called “International Languages”. Probably the most international language in the world is English, which is the majority language of at least a dozen nations, and is the primary language of government or commerce, or both, in many more. Yet there were no English books in that section. What the people at the library really mean is foreign languages, but somehow foreign has become a bad word.
This reflects a very common trend. Some of us don’t like the way others of us have treated foreigners, so rather than address the real problem—which, after all, would require us to talk to people—we blame the word, and dragoon international to take its place, ignoring the fact that that word already has a meaning, which is not the same as that of foreign.
Long ago, when I was a child, it was decided, by the people who decide such things, that mentally retarded (itself a euphemism from an earlier generation) had become pejorative, and the formerly-retarded children at my school were reclassified as special education children. I can still hear the mean kids on the playground shouting, “Special ed! Special ed!” (Not at me.)
Cripple and Crippled have undergone a similar drumming-out. Rather than engaging with our neighbors to get them to treat cripples with dignity and humanity, we have assigned the latter to a string of new categories, first handicapped, then disabled, then differently-abled, and now (at least for the moment) challenged. Even the venerable Crippled Children’s Hospital in Richmond, which could scarcely be accused of disrespect or cruelty towards its patients (beyond what’s normal in the medical profession), has changed its name.
Now, it is true that, over the past couple of centuries (ever since the so-called Revolution of Sensibility in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries), and especially since the middle of the Twentieth Century, we have grown more sensitive as a society towards the feelings of various groups of people who don’t enjoy the same social status, or physical or mental health, or what-have-you, as most of us; and that’s a very good thing. Sometimes our language has changed to reflect that development, and we shouldn’t complain about that. I’m glad that we don’t call intellectually challenged persons dummies and idiots anymore (even though I’m not glad that we now call them intellectually challenged).
On the other hand, more often, people seem to want to impose changes on the language in order to drive developments in attitude or politics. It’s as if they kept producing new T-shirts with slogans on them, and got indignant with those of us who didn’t want to wear the T-shirts. The fact that they have had to keep on coming up with new euphemisms for various sorts of person ought to give us a clue that, in many cases, we haven’t really been addressing the problem.