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Re inventing illness and disease through euphemistic language , where I will reflect on the various word-formation processes used to generate the taboo language used to refer to physical and mental illnesses in French and English. More than mere labels stuck to objects, people or notions, words are representations of the world, and of the way we conceive the world we live in, and are a means of making sense of it. Words have to be understood as snapshots of society, or rather as snapshots of the way we think of society. A neologism is generally defined as a new lexeme or phrase entering a given language, or a new meaning taken by an existing lexeme or phrase in a given language.

Taboo is a proscription of behaviour that affects everyday life. Yet, with examples borrowed from English and French, I would like to show that even in our contemporary western societies, taboo language is a powerful — even if often unrecognized — force — among others — to expand the lexicon, as Keyes clearly states:.

Originally meant to avoid blasphemy and be polite, euphemisms are now just as likely to be a tool of cover-up and obfuscation […]. E uphemisms speak to concerns of their time […]. The words we use and those we avoid illustrate what we care about most deeply. Taboo language can be seen as one of the many reasons behind the expansion of the lexicon for realities or referents we feel uncomfortable with, while the various word-formation processes — be they morphological processes such as affixation, compounding, shortening, etc.

Some of the examples I use in this article are clearly not lexicalized, and are more ad-hoc discursive occurrences than real neologisms, but some of them managed to make their way through and are recorded in dictionaries of contemporary English such as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary , the Oxford English Dictionary , etc. A euphemism is generally considered to be a way to soften down, to sugar-coat a reality or referent deemed too unpleasant, harsh, coarse or difficult to accept by resorting to a softer version, as noted by Kany:.

Euphemisms are the means by which a disagreeable, offensive or fear-instilling matter is designated with an indirect or softer term. Euphemisms satisfy a linguistic need. A euphemism linguistically consists in replacing the original signifier , perceived as being offensive or unpleasant by another signifier, perceived as softer, politer, and less offensive or derogatory.

Each of those terms highlights a specific aspect of euphemisms: for example, the term social lubricant focuses on the social function played by euphemisms, which can only be generated and thrive in a given social context, when the term comfort words rather emphasizes the relationship between the locutor and the interlocutor.


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The term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. The notion of face, positive or negative, is therefore something that everyone is trying to protect and maintain, thanks to, among many other linguistics strategies, euphemisms and dysphemisms. The notion that different varieties of a language use different terms, with the same or substantially the same denotation, has been called cross-varietal synonymy.

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Labelling any lexeme or phrase orthophemistic , euphemistic or dysphemistic will therefore depend on the context in which the lexeme or phrase is used, and the intention of the speaker. In this process, neutral terms gradually become dysphemistic over time. Those dysphemisms are replaced by euphemisms, which later become orthophemisms. As they do so fresh euphemisms are introduced to take their places. Soon the process affects these new terms and they are displaced in turn.

The inevitable life cycle of these words is as follows: euphemism, popular English, colloquialism, vulgarism, obscenity. They were replaced by handicapped and then by disabled , which then evolved in the same way as the previous expressions. They have now given way to euphemisms such as physically challenged , differently abled , or lately to people with disabilities. This accounts for the fact that most euphemisms are short-lived and quickly become orthophemisms or dysphemisms, as the taboo they try to silence seems to contaminate them.

Indeed, who has never thought twice about the proper language to use when talking about a given disease to someone who must live with it on a daily basis? What, then, is so shameful about having a disease, be it curable or not, and talking about it? The same goes for French, and the etymologies of the words malade and maladie are revealing: malade comes from Latin male habitus literally mal portant i.

The word morbus first disappeared, because it sounded too much like mors death, corpse and was replaced by words such as infirmitas, languor, valetudo ; the word aeger was also replaced by the following euphemisms: infirmus, gravis, languidus. Then, the euphemism male habitus came with vulgar Latin, giving malade and maladie in French. As a result of that, talking about diseases is never an easy thing, and speakers usually resort to euphemisms. There is thus evidence to suggest that the relation between euphemism and the vast array of pathological medical conditions referred to as disease go a long way, all the more as diseases are at the crossroads of various taboo domains: body, death and sex.

Depending on the type of disease, the taboo domain will vary. For instance, the taboo around venereal diseases is not a taboo about death, like cancer, but a taboo about sex. Why do we need euphemisms when talking about diseases? Why is there a need for disease euphemisms? What indirect means do we use to talk about diseases? Which specific diseases are tabooed? Which euphemisms do we use to talk about diseases? Why do we use disease euphemisms if proper scientific terms have been thought of? Although there will probably always be euphemisms used to mention diseases or the ill, the reasons why it is so vary considerably according to time periods.

Let us focus on two specific examples to illustrate our point, syphilis and leprosy. It was usual for people to blame the foreigners for the sexual deviance it supposedly came from, hence names such as Spanish needle, Spanish pox, Spanish pip, Spanish gout, the disease of Naples, Naples canker , then in the 18 th century the malady of France, French pox, French disease, French aches, French fever, French malady, French gout , and French marbles.

Or did they? Indeed, diseases and illnesses are still tabooed nowadays for two main reasons:. Because they can be lethal: cancer, AIDS, etc. Indeed, with diseases, there are many reasons why one would prefer to use a euphemism:. Not to mention the name of the disease for superstition-related reasons,. Not to make someone uncomfortable when mentioning their condition,. For one, it is nowhere near as easy to define as physical illness.

The term covers an enormous assortment of conditions, ranging from mildly eccentric or neurotic behavior, to severe psychotic disorders where a patient might lose total contact with reality as in the case of severe schizophrenia, for example. To the layperson who lumps all these together as insanity , the picture is indeed a confusing one. When is nonnormal behavior to be considered an illness? When is behavioral deviance considered problematic? As in most cases of stigmatizing illnesses, the origins of mental illness are usually mysterious.

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It is still much-tabooed, as the causes of mental illness remain mysterious, and people suffering from it are feared for that reason. Tu vas pas bien? Let us now examine why some diseases are more tabooed than others, and how their very names are used dysphemistically and lead to the creation of semantic neologisms.


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  5. Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease. And the disease so enriched with meanings is projected onto the world. Stein Benjamin J. In his diatribe , he called rock the AIDS of popular music. Perrone Charles A. But now that his wife has lost the presidency and Bill is under scrutiny , he is suddenly a leper to the party that enabled him for decades.


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      The truth is you have to question how seriously these Democratic women take sexual harassment. These are some of the same women who held a pep rally for Bill Clinton in after his impeachment. Kathy Frost had said. Especially way Down East, where they eat wardens for breakfast. Doc Larrabee was one of the lonely exceptions. Maybe he felt sorry for me, or maybe, as a recent widower living alone in an isolated farmhouse, he thought that hanging around with the hated new game warden would be the cure for midwinter boredom. Illnesses have always been used as metaphors to enliven charges that a society was corrupt or unjust.

      Traditional disease metaphors are principally a way of being vehement.

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      We find expressions such as fight hard , or fight back , which are not originally attached to the disease itself 7. Let us now examine more closely the very words and expressions used euphemistically in French and English, and see how they expand the lexicon through specific word-formation processes.

      We are now turning our attention to the code itself, and how euphemisms are incorporated into the systems that most speakers of a language use. Now that the reasons why diseases and illnesses are still tabooed nowadays have been developed, we will see that it is relevant to consider the role of taboo and taboo language in the neological expansion of the lexicon, as Keyes writes:. An excellent way to determine what we find embarrassing is to examine our verbal evasions.

      No matter which human group we look at, past or present, euphemism and its counterpart dysphemism are powerful forces and they are extremely important for the study of language change. They provide an emotive trigger for word addition, word loss, phonological distortion and semantic shift [Burridge ].

      Yet, as far as disease euphemisms are concerned, there does not seem to be any lexical gap to fill in, as the reality and the words to refer to it already exist; what are therefore the motivations behind the creation of euphemisms and dysphemisms, especially when it comes to refer to illness and disease? This means that if society plays a role in the lexical expansion of taboo language, the very context of utterance can also play a part.

      Basically, several functions for the creation of euphemisms and dysphemisms can be identified, but we have to keep in mind that the functions can overlap and be found together for a given lexeme or phrase:. An argumentative function convince the interlocutor s of the relevance of the new image offered by the new signifier ;. A relational function create a feeling of in-groupness between the speaker and the interlocutor s , create a specific identity to include some, and exclude others ;. The Morphology of Dutch "contributes to ongoing discussions on the nature and representation of morphological processes, the role of paradigmatic relations between words - and between words and phrases - and the interaction between morphology, phonology, and syntax.

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      New from Oxford University Press! The Morphology of Dutch By Geert Booij The Morphology of Dutch "contributes to ongoing discussions on the nature and representation of morphological processes, the role of paradigmatic relations between words - and between words and phrases - and the interaction between morphology, phonology, and syntax. We Have a New Site!

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      Verbal Hygiene. Deborah Cameron. Routledge Taylor and Francis. Discuss this Review. Added to the old edition are a foreword 17 pages and an afterword 26 pages , which give an updated frame to this classic 17 years after its first publication. C emphasizes that verbal hygiene is neither wrong nor right, but exists because the very notion of language and metalinguistic awareness of language as a system calls for the practice of imposing normativity.

      C maintains that, although there have been changes that pertain to language since the last edition was published e. In fact, she has learned that verbal hygiene is even more pervasive than she originally thought. Chapter 1 lays out the issues that C discusses in the subsequent chapters. One issue is the problems of prescriptivism. According to C, prescriptivism is a type of verbal hygiene. Linguists view all varieties of English as equally appropriate for certain contexts, and they do not necessarily make value judgments about regional and social varieties.

      C sees both of the positions as not escaping normativity. Attention to normativity is often magnified because linguistic order stands for order of a different kind. For example, prescriptivism is deemed important and necessary because it is often claimed that communication will break down if it is neglected, and if communication breaks down, the unity of a nation is threatened. Chapter 2 points out that style in English can be hyperstandardized and commodified, and that the ultimate goal of the verbal hygiene of style is not uniformity and consistency, but financial and professional satisfaction.

      C considers the grammar debate to be a case of moral panic, that is, the phenomenon of a social issue suddenly receiving intense scrutiny accompanied with attributions of moral significance that project a sense of urgency and distraught emotion. C points out that conflicting emotions surface in debates about grammar: failure and humiliation on one hand, and nostalgia about the good old days of order and certainty on the other.

      According to C, grammar stands for moral values, and the debate is generated out of anxiety over the state of British culture in the context of emergent pluralism. Conservatives have taken the opportunity to address the fear and anxiety about the state of British culture through control of the English language and portrayal of the development of diversity in linguistic matters as fragmentation of the nation.

      The stakes in the debate have been multiplied by the emotional and moral implications that are linked to political and ideological issues. In the debate in question, language ultimately served to unite conservatives who feared losing support because of their own fragmentation as a political party. Here, C proposes that linguists should be involved in such a debate by proposing better alternatives based on critical examinations of standards and values.

      Chapter 4 focuses on concerns over political correctness as acts of verbal hygiene. C discusses various debates over political correctness, including feminist crusades for non-sexist language and controversy over racially discriminatory expressions. What is behind the tension between political correctness and its opponents is the question of how a society with diverse points of view and customs can communicate and possibly share common cultures.

      This chapter introduces the idea that a perfect language, in which everyone agrees on what certain words mean, is almost impossible.