Weekly Word Watch: evolve, mixed-weight, and baby box
Some trending stories this week taught us lots of new words.
We felt for a man who went to hospital for thunderclap headaches (which are sudden and intense) after eating the world’s hottest pepper.
A lawsuit against Coachella, the popular California music festival, called up the industry term radius clause. This restricts artists from playing within a certain number of miles within a venue before and after a live show.
And we marveled at a creature – and noun phrase – that not even the best surrealist author could dream up: the genital-breathing punk turtle, or the Australian Mary River turtle, now on a new list of endangered reptiles.
Those are quite the words, but we’ve decided to focus in greater depth on these three:
This week, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, John Boehner, brought a notable euphemism in recent American politics back into the spotlight.
I’m joining the board of #AcreageHoldings because my thinking on cannabis has evolved. I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities. @AcreageCannabis https://t.co/f5i9KcQD0W
— John Boehner (@SpeakerBoehner) April 11, 2018
Boehner’s efforts to promote greater legalization of cannabis in the US as board member of Acreage Holdings marks a significant change from his previous position: ‘unalterably opposed.’
By saying his thinking has evolved, Boehner softens, if not excuses, the severity of his change, presenting it as growth and enlightenment rather than admitting any previous error.
While forms of it saw a smattering of uses in the 1990s and early 2000s, the euphemism evolve rose to prominence in 2010, when President Obama expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage changed: ‘Attitudes evolve, including mine’.
Evolved spiked again in 2015, when, challenged on his seesawing stance on abortion rights at a debate, candidate Donald Trump said he ‘evolved on many issues’, just as President ‘Ronald Regan evolved on many issues’.
While evolve may seem like clever lexical maneuvering, it has quickly fallen prey to what Stephen Pinker has dubbed the euphemism treadmill, a process in which a word replacing an offensive one itself takes on all the nasty associations of the original term.
And so evolve, in trying to paper over past views, has just come to signal to the public that a politician has found it convenient and timely to change positions. They call that a flip-flop in the US, Mr Boehner.
Speaking of the euphemism treadmill, the term mixed-weight got some attention on the internet this week.
In a mixed-weight relationship or couple, ‘there’s a noticeable difference in body size between partners’, as Kasandra Brabaw defined the term in an article on Refinery29.
The term came to prominence in 2013 when a study found that mixed-weight couples experience more conflict and then again in 2016 when another study concluded mixed-weight couples were judged as a poorer match than their counterparts.
This week, Brabaw defended the term mixed-weight, embracing the term as a way to destigmatize weight. Over in the Independent, however, Olivia Petter calls mixed-weight the latest form of body shaming, citing some who ‘find it deeply offensive and unnecessary, given its discriminatory undertones’.
And so we see the euphemism treadmill spinning. Mixed-weight is intended as a neutral description, particularly in its avoidance of terms like fat. But it cannot avoid, for all its politeness, that there is a difference in weight, thereby singling out weight as an issue.
The euphemism highlights the taboo.
In last week’s Word Watch, we focused on terms that illustrate our vocabulary of sex and gender is rapidly changing. I think the problematic nature of a term like mixed-weight, whether we like it or not, suggests a much more sweeping lexical trend at work in which sex and gender are one major part – our lexicon of identity, or how we talk about ourselves and how others get to talk about us.
News from the state of Indiana has highlighted another interesting term this week: baby box.
Most states in the US have safe-haven laws, sometimes known as Baby Moses laws, which allow for the legal surrender of an unharmed infant.
Sites of surrender range from hospitals to Walmarts. Indiana, for its part, has Safe Haven Baby Boxes, specially outfitted and installed at just two fire stations since 2016. One of the baby boxes, at a volunteer fire station in Michigan City, Indiana, saw its second infant in less than six months.
The unwanted newborn will live another day, as will the term baby box, thanks to the remarkable contraption, concept, and story.
The safe-haven baby box, though, should not be confused with a very different baby box made famous by Finland: the maternity package, or äitiyspakkaus.
Colloquially called a baby box by English speakers, the Finnish maternity package has been given to nearly all expectant mothers there since the mid-1900s. The box contains essential childcare products and doubles as a crib.
Both baby boxes are for infants – just under radically different circumstances.