This may or may not be true, but it's my perception of it.

In English there seems to be a phenomenon where we need a word for something that might be considered offensive, e.g. body parts, certain disabilities, skin colours, etc, so we come up with a word for it. Over time it becomes offensive to use that word so another word is created for it, then this pattern repeats

There are plenty of examples, but obviously it would be offensive to list the words here.

To a certain degree you could call this political correctness, I'm not sure that's all encompassing though

My question is first, is this a correct assumption? Is it backed up by evidence? But mainly, is this purely an English phenomenon or is shared with others languages?

  • 1
    Re: „but obviously it would be offensive to list the words here“ — with all respect, I beg to differ. We are supposed to discuss linguistic phenomenons, so we have to be specific about the words we're talking about — even the expletives, or else it would be an abstract discussion, not a scientific research. Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 6:01
  • Just quickly noting that it can also go the other way: certain words can become less offensive over time too (e.g. 'jerk' in English), so it's not a unidirectional thing. Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 9:32

3 Answers 3


This is indeed a cross-linguistic phenomenon! Stephen Pinker named it the "Euphemism Treadmill" in his book The Blank Slate; the more general linguistic term is "pejoration", when a certain word or phrase becomes less polite over time. And it happens in pretty much every situation where a euphemism is used.

The classic (SFW) example in English is the name of the room where one defecates: the terms "water closet" (closet with plumbing), "toilet" (place for doing makeup), "bathroom" (room with a bath in it), and "restroom" (room where one rests) all originated as euphemisms and then experienced pejoration. And even such a now-obscene word as "shit" originated as a euphemism; the original meaning was something like "to separate", cognate with "schism" and "scissors".

(The opposite of this is "amelioration", where a word's meaning becomes more positive over time. This happened to "fine" and "nice" in English, which were originally neutral words but developed a positive connotation.)

  • Both answers are good, I picked this one as I now have some terms to Google, and a book to buy "The Blank Slate"
    – tony
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 19:17
  • @tony Ah, I'll add that note into the answer also!
    – Draconis
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 20:08

Without a list, we can't be sure how narrowly you want the explanation to be tailored. What I think you're talking about is probably universal in language, and isn't a feature of language per se, it's a cultural one, manifested in language. Farting is deemed to be socially negative, so the term "fart" is one of those dis-preferred words, and instead to use some euphemistic replacement, like "poot" (but that's child language) or "flatulate" (rather medical sounding), or "pass gas". There are numerous other examples referring to body parts and actions, also ethnicity. What's on the list and which list it's on varies over time, as does the most likely referent, for example "breast" was for a while a less-polite term. Ethnic terms seem to be particular volatile, no doubt because the underlying social issues change rapidly.

The same phenomenon exists is every language that I know of. For example, in Logoori polite speech in the presence of elders, you should use the verb "breathe" to refer to farting; the singular of "buttock" (cheeks) is used to refer to the anus; there are various insulting ethnic terms which of course you don't use in the presence of members of that ethnicity (words which meant things like "foreigner", "mud-person", "bush savage", "despised"). On the other pole of word-tabooing, a number of languages have special rules about men saying words that contain sounds from their mother in law's name, such as "hlonipha" in Nguni society. In Javanese, there are at least three speech registers, depending on one's relationship to the interlocutor, which involves different lexical items and different grammatical constructions.

The simplest albeit most risky way to determine that there really are such conventions is to try violating the apparent conventions, and see what the effect is.

  • may I know which answers of mine were not well received?

amelioration and pejoration are cross linguistic. 'make out' is now being used for 'sleeping with' the opposite sex, which itself originated as a euphemism for the f-word.

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