‘The best way to lose weight is to eat clean’, my gym instructor informs me.
There’s a linguistic crime in this sentence, but it isn’t the awkward non-adverb at the end. It’s the word ‘clean’.
It’s part of a broad and largely accidental linguistic phenomenon: language that shames by default.
A brief modern etymology
The term ‘clean’ started its modern English life innocuously. It’d be a compliment when someone used it about your house. It’d be an expectation of common etiquette if used about you. Generally, it was used positively, signifying healthiness, tidiness, neatness, or lack of bacteria.
But the term has become negatively loaded in recent years. It now gets applied to food or even people, in ways that are both insidious and outright pejorative.
Food, dirty food
With food, the slight is insidious. ‘Clean’ eating means anything that doesn’t make you fat or unhealthy.
Malice isn’t intended, but there’s a concerning undertone: that eating anything other than steamed kale is filthy or repulsive. It’s the same undertone that ‘artist’ Tony Burke hit on when he photographed ‘women who eat on tubes’, without their consent.
It all feeds (pun intended) a damaging idea: that eating, one of our most basic survival techniques, is shameful. It glamorizes starvation and fetishizes the unhealthy ‘skinny ideal’ that leads to body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
Good ‘clean’ fun?
The outright pejorative of ‘clean’ is most commonly used on gay hook up apps like Grindr.
In a disturbing trend, men are using the term ‘clean’ in their profile descriptions as a synonym for ‘HIV negative’.
Linguistically it follows that the antonym – like with ‘clean eating’ – is dirty, disgusting, and despicable. What needs disinfecting here aren’t the people; it’s the shaming diction.
I spoke to HIV activist Nic Dorward who said: ‘We won’t get to “end HIV” until we end HIV stigma, and the shaming language used when referring to people who live with HIV is a big driver of that stigma. People who say they are only looking for “clean” or “disease free” on their dating profiles is just an example of this. It’s exhausting to continually educate people.’
When discussing disease, the commonly used vernacular continues the accidental phenomenon of shaming.
It seems to be generally accepted that when we discuss someone with cancer, for example, we must describe them as ‘battling’ cancer. They’re ‘warriors’ who are ‘fighting’. And if they die, it’s commonly reported that they ‘lost their battle’.
Again, no malice is intended here. But this bellicose diction, using the metaphors of wartime rhetoric, isn’t always helpful for patients – especially for those with a terminal diagnosis who’ll never ‘win their battle’. Or for those who made a miraculous recovery and ‘cheated death’.
Again, we must consider the antonyms and linguistic deductions. For ‘cheating’, we deduce that the rules weren’t followed and the correct, natural conclusion wasn’t reached. The pugnacious vernacular of ‘winning battles’ implies that if you lose yours, you didn’t fight hard enough, even though this is out of control for many disease sufferers. Or worse, you’re one of life’s ‘losers’ instead of its winners.
It’s a form of semantic victim blaming, suggesting the sufferer gave up, didn’t try, or if they did, they must’ve done something underhand and cheated death itself.
A way forward
Language’s evolution is inevitable, fascinating, and often positive for society. But on occasions like this, it harms. Maybe not intentionally, but it perpetuates some damaging ideas.
Censorship is rarely effective or wise. But more consideration could provide us with semantics scrubbed of any stigma or shame.
What’s wrong with ‘healthy eating’, for example? Or describing someone as ‘living with cancer’ rather than ‘battling’ it. Not only are these synonyms kinder, they’re also plain English. What you lose in hyperbole, you make up for in clarity.