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The game of the name

April 06, 1994|By Steven Pinker

The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name. (We will know we have achieved equality and mutual respect when names for minorities stay put.)

People learn a word by witnessing other people using it, so when they use a word, they provide a history of their reading and listening. Using the latest term for a minority often shows not sensitivity but subscribing to the right magazines or going to the right cocktail parties.

Shifts in terms have an unfortunate side effect. Many people who don't have a drop of malice or prejudice but happen to be older or distant from university, media and government spheres find themselves tainted as bigots for innocently using passe terms such as "Oriental" or "crippled."

Arbiters of the changing linguistic fashions must ask themselves whether this stigmatization is really what they set out to accomplish.

Steven Pinker, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the ,, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is author of "The Language Instinct."

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