Euphemism doesn’t work. Euphemism compelled by force majeure works backwards.

Consider the word “breast”. It used to be a relatively neutral term, and some trace of that still lingers — the white meat of a turkey or chicken is the “breast”. However, some years ago bluenoses decided that it was a useful euphemism for a human female’s teats, and as a result it’s almost impossible to use the correct technical term for the upper front part of a suit of armor without inducing sniggers.

The rule is this: a particular set of grunts, clicks, hisses, etc. constitutes a “word”. “Words” are used to denote particular “things”, whether concrete physical objects or metaphysical/philosophical concepts, and when that happens we say the “word” has a “meaning”. Choosing a different set of grunts and clicks to denote the same underlying “thing” simply produces a new synonym for the original word.

Ilya Somin discusses one of the peripheral issues surrounding Harry Reid’s comments, Baldilocks goes into more detail about that issue, and Jeff Goldstein looks at the idiocy of a Washington State legislator. In both cases, the underlying matter is the same: a word or term is used in a pejorative manner, and people who object to use of the pejorative want to substitute another term, in the process borrowing the positive or neutral connotations of the new term. It doesn’t work, because the term in present use denotes a particular set of behavioral and/or inherent characteristics, and if the new term refers to the same set of behavioral and/or inherent characteristics it more or less instantly becomes a simple synonym for the old.

To be blunt: both “nigger” and “poor” (in the two cases referred to) denote behavioral and/or inherent characteristics of particular subgroups. Substituting “Negro”, “colored”, “African-American”, or any other word or term without addressing the underlying characteristics being denoted simply converts the new term into a synonym for “nigger”, and it will be used that way by people wishing to denote those characteristics. The same thing is true of “poor”, just as it is for “breast”, “gay”, and the whole set of pejoratives.

There was a short-lived attempt, in which I participated, back in the Sixties and Seventies to broaden the meaning of “nigger” to encompass the behavioral characteristics being denoted regardless of the inherent characteristics. It didn’t work, although it’s a bit amusing to see Harry Byrd still trying (and still failing). Instead we see the continual application of the sophomoric, simplistic version of egalitarianism for which Jack Vance coined the neologism “egalism” to attempts to deny the existence of the characteristics being denoted. Unfortunately for such attempts the underlying characteristics continue to exist, and the terms used to refer to people exhibiting them continue — and will continue — to be pejorative because the characteristics are regarded as undesirable. We don’t need more synonyms for “nigger”. We need ways to eliminate, ameliorate, or cope with the characteristics “nigger” denotes.