Sunday, September 19, 2010

What's In A Label?

A couple of days ago, I was listening to a recent podcast of Gene Burns, my longtime favorite radio talk show host. When the conversation turned to solving the budget crises of both California and the nation, Gene suggested a number of possible remedies, including sensible entitlement reform.

Nothing harsh, mind you. Just a call for all Americans to assess whether we can afford current and projected levels of public-sector spending, such as near-universal healthcare coverage and generous public employee pensions, given our aversion to higher taxes.

A woman called him up and was upset that he had used the word "entitlements." She insisted Gene was using the term pejoratively to demean those on public assistance. I couldn't believe my ears. Entitlements? My recollection was the umbrella word was invented in the 70s to replace terms that had developed a negative connotation, such as welfare, food stamps and the like.

But, just like so many other terms born of good intentions, entitlement has taken on a negative connotation through repeated use over the decades. Phrases used to describe intellect or mental health are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon, which I will call connotative depreciation (apparently I invented the term).

If I recall correctly, my friend Paul Henrici told me his current home in Lakeville used to be a facility known as the Connecticut Home For Idiots. That was back when there were three well-known clinical categories of intellectual deficiency: idiot, imbecile and moron — with the latter being the least intelligent. They were honest terms for their time, but over the years they acquired a stigma — perhaps because of their use as epithets — so the term mentally retarded was introduced.

That phrase has been largely replaced by developmentally disabled. There are some who now find that phrase offensive so — believe it or not — I have actually heard the term differently abled bandied about. And word on the street in the educational community is that a search is on to replace special education. Amazingly, that term — already euphemistic in its origin — has also suffered from connotative depreciation.

And look at what's happened to terms of race and ethnicity. The N-word has always been highly-charged and offensive but colored people was fine pretty much until the 1960s, when it was replaced by black and — later — African American. In the 80s,  people of color emerged to describe non-whites. If colored people was deemed offensive, then why would non-whites come up with the almost-identical people of color?

Current trends suggests that any term used to describe a disadvantaged group will suffer from connotative depreciation and have to be replaced by a fresher term. I project that at this rate we will effectively run out of such terms by 2030. A hot new job field will open up: connotative depreciation analyst. Prepare your kids for a career now.


  1. the terms idiot, imbecile, moron, were, if my memory serves, also used incorrectly and perhaps with prejudice. Immigrants, with little of no ability to communicate, would be assigned to one of the categories. There were tests (not remember the details) which would not test the intellectucal abilities of a non-English speaker.

  2. Joan,
    No term is appropriate if used with prejudice. Perhaps that's why all these terms eventually fall into disfavor and have to be replaced.

  3. I think those three terms ... idiot, imbecile, moron ... are now used to describe the people who govern our country ... OPPS!