Gwyneth Paltrow’s divorce announcement on March 25 sparked conversation all over the Internet. The discussion wasn’t about how sad fans were about her split from longtime husband (and Coldplay frontman) Chris Martin; rather, it was about Paltrow’s euphemistic language. The actress assiduously avoided the term divorce in her original blog post on her site Goop, and opted instead for conscious uncoupling.
No. Gwyneth Paltrow did not invent this term. The word uncouple has been applied to the end of relationships since at least 1942, though it only surfaced in pop-psychology talk in the 1970s. Conscious uncoupling appears to have been coined by psychotherapist Katherine Woodward Thomas (though the term may have been coined independently by others around the same time). Thomas has been using this phrase over the last several years to describe a process of separation filled with respect and goodwill. She even offers a five-week program called Conscious Uncoupling that promises to “release the trauma of a breakup” while helping participants “reclaim [their] power and reinvent [their lives].”
Will the term conscious uncoupling replace divorce? I predict it won’t, because conscious uncoupling, as euphemistic as it is, appears to refer to a particular type of divorce—specifically one devoid of animosity. Tumultuous, nonconsensual, and “unconscious” divorces will still thrive. Today, the term divorce is not necessarily negative. But if conscious uncoupling catches on, will divorce come to have exclusively negative connotations? Divorce and conscious uncoupling could coexist in this scenario—there’s room enough for the both in the English language.
However, from time to time in the history of English, euphemisms have completely overtaken their more direct counterparts. Ralph Keyes discusses the oldest known euphemism, bear, in his book Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms. A thousand years ago when bear first entered English, bears were considered to be blood-hungry beasts capable of tearing a human limb-to-limb, creatures that many considered to be monsters. At this time, people believed that to say the name of a monster would summon that horrifying creature. Following similar logic, characters in Harry Potter refer to Lord Voldemort as He Who Must Not Be Named. Keyes writes: “The word ‘bear’ itself evolved from a euphemistic term that meant ‘the brown one.’… Because the word that ‘bear’ replaced was never recorded, it remains a mystery.”
Bears were terrifying creatures to early English speakers, just as divorce is a frightening term for some people today, including Gwyneth Paltrow, apparently. If enough English speakers feel the same way, conscious uncoupling could overtake divorce in the next hundred years. Perhaps in a thousand years, the word divorce will be obsolete. Then again, divorce and conscious uncoupling might both be in popular use in the future. Barring the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone, none of us will be around to find out.
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