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Words Will Never Hurt Me

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(Claude Monet)

George Carlin hated euphemisms — hated how they soften hard truths. But New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who thinks Carlin was one of the world's greatest sociolinguists, has a surprising take on one of Carlin’s most famous bits.


Adam Gopnik

Comments [11]


What George Carlin means to say is that he thinks PTSD only happens to combat veterans and not anyone else.

Oct. 11 2016 10:25 AM
Steve Kasner from Portland, Oregon

I was looking through the radio episode archive, to find radio episodes of Radiolab I somehow missed. I was happy to find this episode, Translation, because I'm sure that I've not heard it.

But... then I saw it. The name.

Which immediately reminded me of the voice.

Which immediately reminded me of the self-satisfied, and the smug & arrogant (but always in a hip, young, insider sort of way) attitude which comes with this voice.

Then I remembered that this voice never speaks seriously about any of the crucial problems of our time (like the climate crisis, or the sixth great extinction, or the wars in the Middle East & elsewhere, or the development of new US nuclear weapons now underway, or the police repression of blacks & other people of color in the US, or the housing crisis in many major American cities).

Instead, as I quickly recalled, this voice only speaks of trivial things, especially trivial things in the life of an upper-class white resident of NYC or another expensive, cosmopolitan city with a wealth of restaurants and cultural offerings for those who can afford them. And, he speaks of these things in contrived scenarios, so he can point out ironies that he finds amusing, and then conclude with a quaint little moral or lesson.

After thinking of all this, I decided to skip this episode altogether. (For the same reason, btw, I have entirely stopped listening to America's Test Kitchen, a series which I used to hear every weekend on my local radio station.)

Of couirse, the name & voice of which I speak is Adam Gopnik.

Adam Gopnik is a plague on public radio. He has no expertise or unique insight to offer us. Please do not use him on Radiolab any longer.

Jun. 04 2016 08:27 PM
Robert from Minneapolis

Carlin was wrong on this. PTSD isn't a euphemism, it's a more accurate description than what we had before. Shell shock isn't an accurate description, PTSD is. There doesn't have to be shells exploding, there doesn't have to even be a war. Soldiers will shell shock were given a day or two of rest and sent right back into the trenches. He says that if we still called it shell shock soldiers would get the treatment they deserve, and he couldn't have been more wrong. While treatment for veterans certainly could be improved, it's far better than it is been in the past. Veterans with shell shock were swept under the rug and called cowards. Would anyone really care to trade places with WWI veterans?

As for his other examples, no one actually talks about poor people having a "negative cash flow position". Those who rail against euphemism often rail against things no one says.

Senior citizen isn't a euphemism, rather "old people" is a dysphemism.

Jan. 14 2016 08:51 AM

Does someone know the name of the music at the end,tried to google it with my broken italian but no luck?ty

Apr. 27 2015 08:26 AM
Heddy from New York

PSDT was recognized after the US civil war as "solider's heart" or "irritable heart."

I first learned about this at an exhibit of folk art about war held at the American Visionary Art Museum. The use of the word "heart" struck me because it recognized the response as emotional. It seemed a more compassionate way to refer to a difficult condition.

Here's more information about the term:

Mar. 22 2015 12:27 PM
Noah Ryan from Massachusetts

I think people here are missing the point of what Carlin is trying to say here.

When he says that we use PTSD to distance ourselves from the reality of the situation, that in no way implies a lack of understanding from our part. Gopnik is entirely right in that the change in wording has reflected an expansion of understanding regarding Post Traumatic Stress.

What Carlin is trying to say is that people don't CARE. It doesn't matter how well you understand something, or how comprehensively an idea is presented to you, if you don't CARE about it. I KNOW that there are people starving in Africa, but I don't CARE enough to do anything significant about it.

When you use a word that is as complicated as "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder", what is it that the lowest common denominator of society will think? "Oh, that's some big complicated science thing that sciency people should deal with." Stupid people do exist, and when confronted with these very emotionally neutral explanations of human behavior, it doesn't drive them to want to improve the way we treat soldiers, or change the way we as a nation fundamentally handle the act of war.

No, this "Pee-Tee-Ess-Dee" is something for the NERDS to figure out.

We are smart, so we don't see the issue this way. But if you ever wonder why stuff like the VA debacle can happen in a nation that supposedly loves its troops, this is your answer. Society at large is not emotionally invested in any concept or issue that takes a certain level of critical thinking to approach.

Mar. 20 2015 05:35 PM
A listener from NYC from NYC

On this Carlin was just plain old wrong, and unfortunately well-meaning but ignorant people listening to his rant on this have followed suit. The reason for the terminology change was that when the disorder was first defined in 1980, clinicians working with domestic violence and rape victims, natural disaster survivors, crime victims, Holocaust survivors, and veterans all noticed the same basic set of issues with different populations of survivors of traumatic experiences. It's a more encompassing term, reflecting the fact that it's not specifically to do with combat. While the prototypical person with PTSD is a male combat veteran, the modal person is a civilian woman. Nearly 8% of the American population will suffer PTSD in their lifetimes:

I am a civilian who has been diagnosed with PTSD, although thankfully due to treatment I no longer meet criterion. My PTSD is indirectly related to the Vietnam War because I lived with a soldier who had an active case when i was a kid. Psychological trauma is a lot like radiation exposure. It cumulates over the lifetime.

Jan. 25 2015 11:47 PM
Suz from The Land of Elvis

Like the other comments, I agree that PTSD encompasses the human condition and may help soften hearts to accept treatment that other terms might induce shame.

Trauma can come from many sources, not just war. Perhaps the march from 'shell shock' to 'PTSD' is really an improvement as when we discuss things, it reduces shame and stigma.

Movies like American Sniper may help to reduce the stigma of PTSD. Maybe people returning from that type if deployment or who suffer from PTSD will seek help before letting it debilitate their lives further. That's the real tragedy.

Jan. 19 2015 11:07 PM
Kim from Denver

PTSD also allows it to apply to more than just soldiers. I wonder what it was called in 1915 when a woman displayed symptoms. Or people who survived natural disasters..

Dec. 23 2014 11:19 AM
Andy from Pennsylvania

I agree with John. In many cases language evolves to help uncover nuance and complexity that might not have been understood before. While PTSD is clearly a very serious issue, my original impetus for leaving a comment was a recent link sent to me featuring Dana Carvey on the Conan show. Clearly, comedians like to poke fun at politicians and their euphemisms --

Oct. 27 2014 01:03 PM
John from Georgia

My dad developed PTSD due to his service in Vietnam and died almost exactly five years ago because of health problems directly related to that condition. In fact, PTSD is cited as the cause of death on his death certificate. Because of his condition I researched PTSD as my thesis topic before his death. As stated, PTSD’s formal name has changed as it’s become better understood, but I would suggest that the name has also changed because previous terms developed a negative stigma that caused sufferers to be less likely to seek treatment. Shell shock was originally viewed as a coward’s disease; some governments would put active service personnel to death that admitted to having it. The name PTSD also recognizes the fact that those directly exposed to conflict aren’t the only ones that can develop the condition; exposure to any type of trauma can lead to PTSD. The changing of terminology is sometimes an attempt to camouflage meaning, but I don’t think that’s the case here.

Oct. 27 2014 12:09 PM

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