Amelioration and Pejoration

Samhita’s rant about the increasingly casual use of the verb “to pimp” and the comment thread, which added similar litanies, got me thinking about the entire ideas of amelioration and pejoration. Wikipedia’s article on semantic change defines them as two particular kinds of changes in the meanings of words: amelioration means “improving” in Latin, i.e. improving the connotation of a word, and pejoration means “worsening,” i.e. worsening the connotation of a word.

In a socio-political context, they occur fairly predictably. A specific term invented or borrowed to refer to an atrocity is generally very pejorated: holocaust is a prime example. Lynch changed from a legal term to severe torture followed by execution inflicted by a mob; ghetto changed from a designated area for Jews in Venice to a highly emotive term conjuring poverty and oppression.

In contrast, after an oppression ends or is lessened, various terms that were used to refer to it become debased via metaphor, and are then ameliorated. This is where pimp and whore fall into: when I say I’m a blog whore, I don’t mean I have sex for links, or anything like that. Many terms used to refer to racial oppression in the US are like that: lynching, slavery, segregation, and disenfranchisement have a far better connotation than they used to have.

A related socio-political semantic change is the euphemism treadmill: a pejorative word is replaced by another to give it an artificially better connotation, then that word becomes pejorated and is replaced by yet another, lather, rinse, repeat. A few millennia ago, the Indo-Europeans did that to wolf and bear (in Germanic languages, bear comes from the euphemism “brown one”); now, English speakers are doing that to gay and black.

Complaining about these changes makes as much sense as complaining that single-member district systems discriminate against third parties. Not using terms that are pejorative because they connote an oppressed group (effeminate, juvenile) or debasing them till the original oppressive meaning is obscured (sissy, to suck) is one thing. Helping the language become more politically neutral is a good thing. Standing on the sidelines and drawing wrong conclusions from inevitable linguistic changes just makes no sense.

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