December 3rd, 2014


Sarcasm treadmill?

There's a linguistic process known as the "euphemism treadmill" by which words originally introduced as euphemisms for terms felt to be insulting or insensitive end up acquiring the same connotations and are replaced in turn by new coinages. A prototypical example in English is the evolution of terms for intellectual disability, which regularly have to be abandoned after being adopted as common insults.

The more general name for this process is "pejoration", which is a specific kind of
semantic change. It can operate not only on the level of individual words but also over whole phrases. For instance, it was once common in American English to respond to wishes like "Have a good weekend!" with "Same to you!" But "Same to you!" came to be used so often as a rejoinder to insults like "Go fuck yourself!" that it sounds rude even when used positively. Most people I know have replaced it in their speech with the wordier "You do the same!" or "Likewise!". "Your mom" is on a similar path; I don't think I would ever use it in isolation any more. (Compare abuela "grandmother", which so frequently appears in insults in Mexican Spanish that I've been instructed it's best to avoid it and use only the diminutive form, abuelita.)

It seems to me there's also a kind of "sarcasm treadmill" where certain apparently innocuous phrases are so frequently used sarcastically that it becomes impossible to take them a face value any more. "Thanks a lot!" is in this category, as is "Thanks for sharing!" (at least in my dialect). "Good job!" and "Well done!" are also problematic by themselves. "Bless your heart!" is a well-known example from Southern American English (although I still do hear Northerners misunderstanding the intent and attempting to use it non-sarcastically themselves). It can be okay in certain circumstances to ask someone if they're happy, but "Happy now?" is always sarcastic, as is "Proud of yourself?"

What other examples can people think of, either for English or other languages?