Activist Language Merry-Go-Round

Updated: JULY 20, 2020

The activist language merry-go-round refers to the way terms about minorities fall in and out of favor and common use. When used metaphorically, a merry-go-round is a continuous cycle of events or activities. The word is most commonly used when the cycle is pointless or unproductive.

Transgender academic and writer Julia Serrano first used the term activist language merry-go-round. She believes stigma drives the activist language merry-go-round. New words are created to protect minorities from stigma. However, as minorities remain stigmatized, any word concerning them eventually becomes tainted, too. It is then replaced with a new word, beginning the cycle all over again.

The term can be used interchangeably with euphemism treadmill. However, words we have euphemisms for don’t necessarily concern minorities.

More About Activist Language Merry-Go-Round

Terms related to minorities and activism come and go for various reasons. Sometimes the meaning of the terms used evolves. Sometimes people understand terms have limitations and create new terms in their place. Sometimes people find established terms offensive and find new ones to replace them. For example, the term “tranny” was once a common abbreviation of transgender. Today most people believe it is a slur.

Activist terms are invented, reclaimed, redefined, and eliminated more rapidly than most terms. Serrano believes that’s because activist terms concern marginalized groups. We don't need to reinvent music or medical terms, for example, as musicians and medical professionals are not stigmatized. The words used around them are less troublesome because there is not the same potential for harm.

As people in minority groups have individual feelings, they usually prefer different terms. One person’s preferred term may be offensive or outdated to someone else. Putting more terms on the activist language merry-go-round helps more people feel heard, acknowledged, and understood.

However, there is some concern about what happens when we remove terms from the merry-go-round. Most people feel terms are eliminated to protect minorities. However, it’s unclear how minorities may feel when their preferred term is deemed offensive or outdated. Some may feel alienated from their communities or accused of repressing them. While there is a place for the activist language merry-go-round, understanding a variety of terms, not just the fashionable ones, helps minority groups stay unified.


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