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Sugar coating the truth

Euphemisms and the English language

Created date

October 25th, 2011

The dreaded euphemism is with us. It is in our government, our economy, our movies and television, our magazines, books, and newspapers. It comes from politicians, scientists, writers, and corporate leaders; its purpose, quite simply, to say something without actually saying it. Call it what you will elliptical language, nice talk, comfort words the euphemism has invaded the English language with a force that rivals Eisenhower s on D-Day. Take, for instance, the condition of the global economy over the last several years. Wall Street didn t collapse, the DOW Jones Industrial average didn t plunge. Instead, we witnessed a mere equity retreat in the midst of a soft economy. Other examples abound. The 1979 meltdown at Pennsylvania s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant wasn t a meltdown at all. It was, in the words of facility officials, an unscheduled energetic disassembly. As improbable as it may seem, airline incident reports don t call a crash a crash. It s an involuntary conversion. Similarly, in the automotive industry, car crashes are moments of sudden deceleration with thermal events (otherwise known as fires) often following.

Linguistic smokescreens

In the spirit of George Orwell s cautionary essayPolitics and the English Language(1946), bestselling author Ralph Keyes calls attention to society s habitual and sometimes dangerous penchant for such linguistic smokescreens in his latest bookEuphemania(Little, Brown, and Company, 2010). I m just amazed by the different ways in which we manipulate language through euphemisms, says Keyes, who has penned 16 books, many of them on the various quirks of the English language. Nothing is more fascinating than trying to understand what bothers people or makes them uncomfortable, and the role that euphemisms play in helping them to avoid that. A case in point, according to Keyes, is military terminology. Soldiers in the field don t kill. They grease, waste, or render the enemy inoperative. Torture is now tough negotiation, and war coercive diplomacy. It might be a stretch to say that euphemisms make it easier for us to engage in lethal conflict to coin my own euphemism but they certainly help, he notes. Phrases like these make your eyes glaze over, and that s the point. People don t want you to pay too much attention to what they re doing. If they can use euphemisms that are a little hard to understand, then they ve done their job. Of course, this is by no means a modern phenomenon. Our ancestors are as guilty as we are.

Long history of double-speak

The famed satirist H.L. Mencken once dubbed the 19th century the Golden Age of Euphemism. Indeed, as Keyes points out in his book, the delicate sensibilities of the Victorian era were every bit as absurd as our double-speak is today. One anecdote from 1837 involved the English sea captain Frederick Marryat. After seeing an American woman take a spill while visiting Niagara Falls, the mariner asked her if she had hurt her leg. The woman, fuming at the query, informed him that the proper term was limb. The same sensitivity applied to clothing. How about trousers or breeches ? Absolutely not in Marryat s day. Trousers was crude and breeches downright vulgar. Most Victorians were more comfortable with any one of a variety of ridiculous euphemisms that ranged from irrepressibles and ineffibles to unutterables and nether garments. InSketches by Boz(1836), Charles Dickens threw one more into the mix, adding inexplicables to the period s uptight lexicon. Traces of this euphemistic tradition carried over into the 20th century as well. In 1920, Pennsylvania censors demanded that writers change loose woman in D.W. Griffith sWay Down Eastto adventuress. Just over a decade later, a woman at a dinner party rebuked soon-to-be Prime Minister Winston Churchill for requesting breast of chicken. He should have asked for white meat. The next day, Churchill, in his trademark rapier way, sent the woman a corsage with a note attached: Pin this on your white meat. Though critical of euphemisms, Keyes, like Churchill, takes a light-hearted approach to his objection, which is evident inEuphemania. On the one hand, I try not to use phrases like energetic disassembly or render inoperative because they re not only nonsensical, they re pernicious, he remarks. On the other hand, you shouldn t be overly puritanical about them either. In fact, you can even have fun with them. Next time you uncork a bottle of heart-healthy merlot, ask your guests if they d like some heart medicine. But the question of whether euphemisms are effective forms of communication is a matter of taste. Is it better to call a spade a spade or an agricultural implement ?