Obvious Remedy

The politically correct use euphemism as a means of control, but language itself resists this and fights back

These days, we are subjected more and more to euphemisms, designed to control us and our thoughts. It was faintly cheering, therefore, to discover that euphemisms themselves have a way of subverting this control. A young musician I know was recently talking about having to attend drama classes as part of her opera training. She had been afraid that all the other students would be better at acting than she is. However, she said, “I was completely OK, as it turned out. The others were all really remedial.” Astonished, I asked her what she meant by remedial. She was clearly just as surprised at my ignorance. “It means crap,” she said firmly. “No good. And they really were rubbish.”

She had no idea that the word remedial comes from the word remedy and has to do with making things better in some way. Crap can only be described as negative.

It is not difficult to guess how this meaning of remedial was so thoroughly perverted. It was taken over by the contemporary forces of euphemism, in this case in schools, among politically correct teachers and in the playground. No doubt the children in ordinary classes were told repeatedly that words like thick or slow or anything of the kind were quite unacceptable when referring to those in the remedial classes. Children are rarely fooled, however, and they used the new word to mean the old words they weren’t allowed to use. In this way, they turned its meaning on its head.

Exactly the same thing has happened to the phrase “mental health”. For years, the politically correct have been trying, with great success, to cut the phrase “mental illness” out of the language as offensive and discriminatory. So they use instead expressions like “issues around mental health”, or “mental health problems”. With supreme absurdity, Trevor Phillips, of the new equality quango, recently spoke of the importance of resisting “the mental health stigma”. Though this is both sad and disturbing, it is also very funny, which again is faintly cheering. Truth may often be mocked, but euphemism sometimes mocks itself.

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