BONUS: Television’s 'Handicap' Moment
An early 1980s episode of The Jeffersons shows the “euphemism treadmill” in action.
JOHN McWHORTER: There’s the euphemism treadmill that I have discussed here and in other places, where you replace a term with a new one because negative associations have settled upon the old term, and you hope to move thought on this concept by having a fresh word that doesn’t have all of those negative associations.
And so, for example, you can refer to someone as “crippled,” but you don’t. No one says that anymore, despite the fact that it was, you know, chiseled into stone on some institutions way back in the day. “Crippled” had bad associations, and so the new term became “handicapped” — much more graceful. But “handicapped” now sounds old, it got worn out. There were negative associations with “handicapped” and so “handicapped” was replaced by “disability.” Even today, there are some people who would prefer that you replace “disability” with “differently abled” or “special needs” — there’s controversy about that — but definitely, we went from “crippled” to “handicapped” to “disability.”