Word Wars

Jonah Goldberg calls attention to new Rasmussen findings on the declining popularity of the terms “liberal” and “progressive” with American voters:

“Progressive” is becoming more of a dirty word, but all political labels – except “being like Ronald Reagan” – are falling into disfavor with many U.S. voters, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

“Liberal” is still the worst and remains the only political description that is viewed more negatively than positively. Being like Reagan is still the most positive thing you can say about a candidate.

Just 15% of voters say they view the description of a candidate as politically liberal as positive, down four points from last November. Forty-one percent (41%) see it as a negative description, up five points form the earlier survey, while 42% say it’s somewhere in between.

Aware of their low ideological ratings, political liberals have shifted in recent times to calling themselves progressives, but that name, too, has begun to lose its luster. Thirty-two percent (32%) now consider it a positive to describe a candidate as politically progressive, but that’s down from 40% just after the last election. Twenty-seven percent (27%) see it as negative label, up from 16%, and 36% put it somewhere in between the two.

Please indulge me in quoting myselfon the subject of words falling out of favor for political reasons:

I have a bit of personal experience in these ongoing word wars. I once had an odd job (in several respects) working on a revision of the Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors, a companion to the Education Resources Information Center (a part of the National Institute of Education) database of educational literature. This was back when political correctness was just getting launched in a big way, and indeed one of the reasons for that particular revision of the Thesaurus was to dump newly politically incorrect terms such as “handicapped” for their politically correct replacements, such as “disabled.”

I had, and still have, serious problems with this effort to police the language, and, in fact, the transition from “handicapped” to “disabled” nicely reveals one of them, the ignoring of plain meaning.

If you were lost, driving alone in an old car on an isolated mountain road late at night, would you rather be in a car that was handicapped or disabled? (The Oxford American Dictionary that’s built into my Powerbook’s operating system says of handicapped that it means “having a condition that markedly restricts one’s ability to function.” The verb “disable,” by contrast, means “put out of action,” and its thesaurus entry refers to “incapacitated,” “paralyzed,” “immobilized,” etc.)

“Liberal” to “Progressive” followed the same trajectory, and for the same reasons, as the transition from “Crippled” to “Handicapped” to “Disabled” and from “Colored” to “Negro” to “Black” to “African American” to “People of Color” to … “Diverse” or whatever the new term will be.

What is producing all of these verbal transitions, I think, is that the group to whom the term refers is “disadvantaged” in some way (whether actually in bad shape or only perceived that way doesn’t matter here), so that the term that applies to it takes on the same negative connotations. The new, substitute term reflects a determination to improve the image of the group, but over time it, too, comes to reflect the little-changed reputation of its referent. So it must be changed again … and again….

Liberals, even by another name, are, alas, still liberals.

Say What? (2)

  1. dchamil September 12, 2009 at 9:40 am | | Reply

    The situation described here is also known as the euphemism treadmill.

  2. Politically Correct (Or Not) Language November 28, 2011 at 10:33 pm |

    […] it happens, I have some personal experience in these language matters. Please allow me to quote myself, quoting myself: Please indulge me in quoting myself on the subject of words falling out of favor for political […]

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