Through the Language Glass

What language can tell us about ourselves.

Tell me who your euphemisms are, and I’ll tell you who you are

What modern euphemisms can tell us about changing moral and cultural values

People in the US have had some fairly urgent things to think about in the last couple of weeks, so it's likely that you haven't heard much about a story that has dominated the news here in the UK. This is the appalling case of the 'Crossbow Cannibal', a forty-year-old postgraduate student of criminology, whose area of research was Jack the Ripper, but whose interest in his subject turns out to have been not entirely academic.

Stephen Griffiths from Bradford in northern England was charged a few days ago with the brutal murder of three prostitutes, after he was caught on CCTV chasing and attacking one with a crossbow. The same cameras caught him going out of his flat later carrying a large sack. Scattered body parts of three women have so far been uncovered, and police believe he was responsible for three other murders as well, although the remains of the victims have not yet been found. When asked for his name in court, the researcher replied "er, the crossbow cannibal".

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Many people have naturally preoccupied themselves with the question of what may go on inside such a warped mind. But one - admittedly rather marginal - thing that struck me as a linguist was not the psychology of this particular psychopath, but the psychology of the event's coverage in the media. In particular, there was one phrase that newspapers repeatedly used to describe the hapless victims of the serial killer. But before I mention it, just one word about these women.

All of them were prostitutes, and lest anyone might entertain any notions about what kind of prostitutes they were, they were not exactly high-class courtesans frequenting 5-star hotels, or glamorous models from exclusive escort-agencies. They were all drug addicts, forced onto the street to pay for their habit. Their lot, in short, was perhaps the most wretched type of existence that our society has to offer. But you might need to read all of this between the lines, because what most of the media chose to call the victims was 'sex workers'.

Why is this striking? Certainly not because a euphemism was used. After all, our need to euphemize is as old as the world's oldest profession itself, as is the hope that if we simply call some unpleasant thing by a less unpleasant name, we will make it a little less unpleasant. What is striking about 'sex worker', therefore, is not that a euphemism was used, but which euphemism was chosen. Or rather, the remarkable thing is which particular feature of the women's existence was felt in need of tarting up. Can you imagine the London Times in the 1880s calling the victims of Jack the Ripper 'sex workers'? The thought is absurd.

In the past, the unpleasant bit that needed dressing up was precisely the fact that sex was being bought and sold. So until recently, there was one inviolable principle behind all euphemisms for prostitutes: in anything from ‘call-girl' to ‘courtesan' (originally from ‘female courtier'), from ‘escort' to ‘streetwalker' or ‘lady of the night', the point was always: mention anything but sex.

But now, ‘sex' is no longer the particular bit that needs concealment. The most degrading aspect of the women's existence, the one that needs redemption by euphemism, is seen to be exactly the fact that they were ‘steetwalking', rather than, say, commuting to the office. The indignity that the euphemism comes to address is the fact that the victims were not professionals with a steady job, not members of the prosperous ‘sex industry'. So calling them ‘sex workers' is felt to be raising their status rather than degrading it even further.

You can draw whatever conclusion you wish about whether this choice of euphemism is good or bad. But wherever you stand, you will have to agree that it's remarkable how much a two-word phrase can tell us about profound changes in moral and cultural values.


Guy Deutscher, Ph.D., is an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures in the University of Manchester.


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