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Semantic Derogation:

A look at pejoration in language connected to the Deaf Community

William G. Vicars, EdD, January 31, 2024


Social dynamics and power imbalances can influence language.


The field of semantic change studies how the meanings of words evolve.

A type of change that sometimes happens to words is "pejoration."

Pejoration is when the meaning of a word (or sign) changes to become more negative over time.

A type of pejoration is "semantic derogation."

Semantic derogation happens when  words typically associated with women or minority groups acquire negative or less prestigious connotations.  (Connotations are the associations, emotions, or additional implications that a word carries beyond its literal meaning. These can be positive, negative, or neutral and are shaped by cultural, personal, and emotional factors.  The literal meaning of a word is its denotation.)


As time passes it is common for society to introduce a term or phrases that is considered a polite way to refer to individuals whose minds function significantly lower on the spectrum of capacity and efficiency than the minds of average individuals.

Over time various social, cultural, and psychological factors as well as societal shifts in understanding and attitudes towards mental health and disability will almost invariably lead to a reevaluation of the any particular language used to describe the aforementioned condition. 

Eventually, whatever word you currently use to describe individuals whose minds function significantly lower on the spectrum of capacity and efficiency than the minds of average individuals -- is going to get cancelled. 


As awareness and sensitivity towards the dignity and rights of individuals with disabilities have grown, terms that were once considered clinical or neutral tend to become viewed as insensitive or derogatory.


Language is a reflection (and conduit) of society's values and attitudes. The pejoration of certain terms can often be linked to broader social issues, such as stigma or discrimination against certain groups. Acknowledging the dynamic and evolving nature of language may help us understand why certain terms become pejorative and why it's important to adapt our language to be more inclusive and respectful.

Let's consider for a moment the word "help."

Doctors help patients.  (Possibly okay as of this moment in time:  2024 -- but it is possible to argue about anything)

Firefighers help people whose house is on fire.  (Possibly okay as of this moment in time: 2024  -- but it is still possible to argue about anything)

So, why is the following not okay?

Interpreters help Deaf people communicate.  (Cancelled: Early 2020's)

Because in sensitive contexts such as disability, homelessness, or other often stigmatized situations the use of the word "help" can sometimes unintentionally imply or contribute to power imbalances, paternalism, or an undermining of the agency and dignity of the people being helped.


What terms, phrases, or approaches might we consider other than the word help when interacting in and with the Deaf community?

1.  Facilitate Communication: This term emphasizes the role of ASL interpreters as facilitators of communication between Deaf and hearing individuals, rather than as helpers. It highlights the professional and neutral role of interpreters in bridging language barriers.

2.  Promote Accessibility: Using this phrase underscores the goal of making environments and services accessible to Deaf individuals. It focuses on the broader objective of inclusion and equitable access.

3.  Create Inclusive Environments: This phrase suggests a commitment to creating spaces where Deaf individuals can fully participate. It's about ensuring inclusivity rather than just offering help.

4.  Enhance Understanding and Awareness: For ASL learners, this phrase can reflect a motivation to better understand Deaf culture and the Deaf community, as well as to raise awareness among others.

5.  Build Bridges Between Communities: This emphasizes the role of interpreters and ASL learners in connecting Deaf and hearing communities, fostering mutual understanding and respect.

6.  Engage in Cultural Exchange: This phrase can be used to highlight the bidirectional learning and cultural exchange that occurs when learning ASL and interacting with the Deaf community.

7.  Advocate for Deaf Rights: This can be a motivation for those who are involved in the Deaf community, focusing on advocacy work to promote the rights and interests of Deaf individuals.

8.  Collaborate with the Deaf Community: This term highlights a partnership approach, where learners and interpreters work alongside Deaf individuals rather than positioning themselves as saviors or unilateral helpers.


Note: Due to the nature of semantic change, pejoration, and semantic derogation -- eventually some of the above listed phrases or terms may also become cancelled.  That's okay. Language evolves. Learn whatever new or socially appropriate language becomes widely accepted in the society in which you live.



Also see: Euphemism Treadmill
The euphemism treadmill is a related concept where a euphemistic term eventually takes on the negative connotations of the term it replaced, leading to the creation of a new euphemism in a continuous cycle. This concept was popularized by psychologist Steven Pinker to describe the cyclic process of language change, particularly in the context of sensitive or stigmatized subjects.




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