By Elof Axel Carlson
In politics we use the term politically correct to describe what we believe is an insincere phrase to hide a harsh reality. Thus to those who object to elective abortions as an act of murder, the term pro-life is favored. To those who feel this is a woman’s decision, the term pro-choice is favored.
What about describing the learning abilities of a child? When intelligence tests used to be applied to all children in public school starting in 1910, terms like feebleminded were replaced by terms like imbecile, idiot and moron on the low end of intelligence quotient measurements and terms like gifted and genius for the high end.
By the 1950s these low-end terms were replaced by the term retarded, but the high-end terms (flattering to parents) were retained. By the 1980s the term retarded was dropped in favor of exceptional child where the term exceptional could be used for any departure from average but usually was applied to what formerly were called retarded children.
There is less argument, however, about physical descriptions of children with disabilities or departures from average appearance or function. I doubt if those who dislike political correctness would want to replace today’s Down syndrome (or trisomy 21) with its original term mongoloid idiocy. Would you rather have your child described as having Tay-Sachs syndrome or its prior description as infantile amaurotic idiocy? Would you rather have your child described as having Hurler syndrome or its original term gargoylism?
In the 1970s terms with racist (mongoloid idiot) or insulting (happy puppet syndrome) connotations were replaced with neutral names, usually the name of a physician who first described the condition or the family in which it originally occurred. The term senile means old (and its root is found in innocuous terms like senior or senator), but in common use for senile we think of the negative side of aging — loss of mental acuity, deteriorating hearing or vision, loss of capacity to smell, arthritic achy joints, impotence, incontinence and a host of degenerative conditions.
I am old but still (fortunately) capable of writing books and articles. While being old is not a blessing, I do enjoy having an income (pension and Social Security) without having to worry each day about going to work. I have time to read lots of books. Nedra and I can enjoy traveling whenever we wish to do so. But I would not say to others that these are my senile activities.
Politicians call these slogans acts of spinning. My English teachers called them euphemisms. Psychologists call the practice reframing. Diplomats call the practice tact. Caring or thoughtful people call it sensitivity. In the vernacular it is about not calling a spade a spade.
Some find it refreshing to use the older terms and phrases because it may disguise or subtly reveal the underlying bias the terms harbor. But sometimes reframing leads to delightful wit like Alban Barkley at the Democratic convention in 1948 who responded to claims that Democrats were bureaucrats. “What is a bureaucrat?” he asked. “A bureaucrat is a Democrat who has a job a Republican wants.”
Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Dept.of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.