I’m a little late to the new toy on the block, but I’ve been playing around with Google’s new Ngrams tool, which tracks the frequency of a word over time by searching 4% of books published since 1500. A friend gave me the idea to test out Carlin’s famous skit on euphemisms. Have phrases which Carlin claims obscure rather than enhance meaning been overtaking more straightforward ones?
Some of Carlin’s points are very well taken. For example, take a look at how we’ve referred to soldier’s shutting down after combat:
This tracks almost perfectly with what Carlin said, which was that we moved from the visceral (“almost sounds like the guns themselves”) condition of shellshock to the softer “battle fatigue” and finally to the hollow “post traumatic stress disorder” (Carlin has “operational exhaustion” in the middle, but it’s just a blip in ngrams).
Carlin also has a point about the sudden decline in slums, and the rise of the inner city:
And he’s not wrong about the rise of “feedback”:
Sometimes, though, he’s laughably wrong, as when he says toilet paper is being replaced by bathroom tissue (it’s not) or when he suggests that animation is overtaking cartoons (it’s a bit more complicated). And while medication may be gaining on medicine, prostitutes look like they’re safe from sex workers. Finally, landfills are at last more popular than dumps.
Hard to know what to make of all this. Clearly, Carlin has some point: especially when talking about medical conditions, our culture of formal terms takes away some of the terror of disease (Hyperuricemia certainly seems less scary than gout) and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that corporate jargon (note the rise of “systems” and of “paradigm”) is often more about tiptoeing around issues than settling them. But then, who wants words to be perfectly clear? If they were, Carlin could hardly say “masturbation is not illegal, but if it were, people would probably take the law into their own hands.”