Archive for the ‘euphemism’ category

The ableism of “on the go”

January 19, 2017

What does “on the go” actually mean? Various online dictionaries, all of which seem to be plagiarising each other, say that the phrase has been around since 1843 with the meaning of “in constant motion”.

But we don’t say the moon is “on the go” around the sun. We don’t talk about Robert Fludd’s “on-the-go” machines. These days, “on the go” is a marketing phrase. And by that, I really mean a phrase that people use to tell us stories about ourselves, stories told with the intention of manipulating us.

Some people genuinely believe that products and devices marketed for use “on the go” really are used mainly by people in a hurry. I’ve heard stories about the early days of designing software for smartphones, where the assumption was that the user would be “on the go” (and indeed “out and about” and other such stock phrases denoting busy-busy-busyness), so they would use the phone for quick, simple things and save the complex stuff for “real” computers. As late as February 2015, a research paper about grocery shopping on mobile phones was entitled On the Go: How Mobile Shopping Affects Customer Purchase Behavior.

What’s the reality? Developers now understand what users have known for a long time: that someone accessing the internet via a tablet or smartphone is more likely to be slumped on their sofa or sitting in bed than “out and about”. Which means they want to use their device for the complex things too – maybe it’s the only internet-connected device they can afford, or maybe they spend most of the day in bed and a lighter device is easier to manage. Either way, their reasons for using a tablet or smartphone have bugger-all to do with being “on the go”. Did the researchers of the paper I cited above really believe that people doing a whole grocery shop on their smartphone are putting toilet roll in their online basket while physically dashing from place to place?

It’s a similar thing with e-readers. They’re marketed for their portability, with the implication that otherwise you’d be throwing War and Peace in your bag before hiking the Machu Picchu trail or jumping on a train to Paris. But I do all my e-book reading at home. Other people tell me that they love e-readers because you can make the text bigger, or because you can hold one and turn the pages with the same hand while the other arm holds a baby or rests in a a sling.

Another example: snacks marketed as “on the go” because they don’t require preparation or cutlery. Are they mostly bought and consumed mid-jog? No, they’re mostly bought by people who don’t have access to a kitchen, or who never learned how to cook, or who are too disabled/depressed/tired to prepare food from scratch. The consumers of “on the go” snacks are probably doing just as much sofa-slumping as your average tablet user.

My point here: things marketed as “on-the-go” make life easier because they compensate for missing resources. Sometimes those resources are financial, which is why so many low-income people access the internet through phones and why insecurely housed people eat more convenience food than most. But a lot of the time those resources are about health and what we can broadly call “cognitive resource”: attention, energy, intelligence, knowledge.

But to talk about that would be to talk about poverty and arthritis and poor education and depression. It would be to talk about insecure housing and chronic fatigue syndrome and failing eyesight. So we reframe it all as being about the frantic pace of modern life. That’s why the marketing for TENA Lady pads explains that the typical buyer needs them because she’s “always on the go” and loves to “keep busy”.

Up to a point, it’s nice to look into the marketing mirror and see someone prettier looking back at you. You buy urine-absorbing pads because that’s what sporty women do, and definitely not because you keep leaking urine.  You buy ready-grated cheese because that’s what busy executives do, and definitely not because your hands hurt.

But wouldn’t it be nice to look into that mirror and actually see yourself sometimes? The marketing concept of “on the go” erases people with disabilities and people in challenging but unglamorous circumstances. They’re replaced by imaginary people who can’t stop dashing around. That erasure is, of course, ableist as hell. It also means that we miss out on more interesting, realistic advertising – and the marketers miss out on telling us the real reasons why we should use their products.

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Hath not a woman eyes? Hath she not hands, organs, dimensions, senses?

October 21, 2008

I don’t want to get into the general debate surrounding the C-word – whether or not it’s misogynistic, whether it’s possible to “reclaim” it, whether it’s unacceptable to say it on television. But it is a very good example of how a euphemism in the wrong hands can prove more offensive than the unobscured meaning.

It probably started in the way that many euphemisms start: with the dilemma of how you report someone else’s speech if you think that one of the words used is unrepeatable.  In the case of the C-word, people started saying things like “a coarse word for part of the female anatomy”, “a slang word for a certain part of the female anatomy”, etc.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where a lot of people are happy to use long words without troubling to check what they mean. Many of those people have (incorrectly but understandably) guessed from context that “female anatomy” is a posh phrase denoting the vagina (and nothing else) and begun using the phrase with that intended meaning.

I hope it’s obvious why seeing “female anatomy” as synonymous with “female genitals” is misogynistic as well as a great way of failing medical school. But I want to go back and look at the misogyny in the original euphemism.

People using euphemisms like “a certain part of the female anatomy” are trying to convey that the word they’re talking about is a well-known swearword which can be both an insult and a slang term for a woman’s vagina. But there’s no need to do this. If you have a genuine desire to protect the listener from swearwords, you don’t need to make any effort to convey the specific swearword. Just say “He used a swearword to insult him”.

If you get specific in your description of the swearword, you are trying to evoke that word in the listener’s mind. That’s an acknowledgement that both you and your listener are familiar with the word. And by choosing a euphemism that emphasises the word’s literal meaning, you are bringing the literal and non-literal meanings together.

Then, of course, there’s the odd choice of vocabulary. A lot of people, when faced with the task of reporting offensive speech, will go for a kind of jokey floweriness in the language they use, e.g. “go forth and multiply”, “extracting the u-rine”, etc. But I think the choice of the phrase “female anatomy” is more significant than that. For a start, why not use one of the hundreds of existing synonyms for “vagina”? Or, if you really can’t bear to say any of those words, why not go for the more natural-sounding “part of a woman’s body”?

Because saying “a certain part of the female anatomy” is a distancing technique in which the quasi-medical language makes the object of the description seem more dirty and problematic.

So you’re reminding your listener of a word which links the vagina and insults; you’re reminding your listener that our culture connects women’s bodies with bad language; you’re implying that even ordinary words for the vagina aren’t suitable to say out loud; and you’re doing all that without even cursing. Talk about having your c*** and eating it.

As for the idiots who think that “female anatomy” is a fancy way of describing a woman’s genitals, you can’t stop them being stupid but you can have some fun with them. From this moment onwards, I therefore decree that “synecdoche” is an even more fancy euphemism for, y’know. A woman’s… y’know. Spread the word!