October 14, 2007

Name that Euphemism

"Euphemism" -- the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also : the expression so substituted.
--Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

No word in the B vocabulary was ideologically neutral. A great many were euphemisms. Such words, for instance, as joycamp (forced-labour camp) or Minipax (Ministry of Peace, i. e. Ministry of War) meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean.
--George Orwell, "1984," appendix (1948).

Euphemisms are increasingly creeping into our vernacular. Here are some examples of euphemisms we use every day, often without thinking:

1. "Gay." "Gay" used to have a real meaning, and now that meaning is lost. One can no longer innocently say, as in the "Flintstones" theme, "you'll have a gay old time. "Second, "gay" is a misnomer. No one has demonstrated that homosexuals are happier than the rest of us

2. "Execute." Literally, "execute" means to carry out one's formal duties. As a euphemism, "execute" specifically means, to kill a criminal pursuant to a legal order. But saying "execute" takes the edge off of the killing. Instead of saying "the convicted murder was executed last night by lethal injection," wouldn't it be more descriptive to say, "the convicted murderer was killed last night by lethal injection"? Perhaps this would cause more people to think about the appropriatenesss of the death penalty.

"Execute" is also now used to describe non-legal killings by criminals, drug lords and the like, when the victims are killed in some cruel and deliberate manner. So now we hear on the news, "a gang member was shot in the back of the head execution-style, with his hands tied behind his back, by rival gang members last night." This common misuse of "execution" is unfortunate, since, if anything, it is a case where we would not want to mask the offensiveness or unpleasantless of the activity.

3. "Euthanasia." When I first heard this word, I thought they were talking about kids in China. "Euthanasia" means the mercy killing of someone who is suffering, usually in the late stages of a terminal illness, and often with the patient's prior permission. The verb "euthanize" means, to kill someone in the manner of euthanasia.

Nowadays, "euthanize" is commonly used to describe the killing of dogs and cats at animal shelters. I find this misuse of "euthanize" extremely offensive, because the dogs and cats being killed are typically not suffering from a terminal illness. They are killed simply because the shelters are overcrowded.

4. "Abortion." No matter what one's viewpoint is on this practice, "abortion" is a rather dry-sounding term that generally just means stopping a process, but as a euphemism, it means killing a fetus, or an unborn (or at least unformed) child in the womb. Note how three of the above examples of euphemisms are terms for different acts of killing.

Washington, DC must be the world's euphemism capital. The bills and acts that come from Congress, especially ones initiated by the Bush Administration and passed by the Republican-led Congress from 2001 through 2006, are named using some stunning euphemisms:

1. No Child Left Behind Act -- an unfunded mandate on states that has left millions of children behind in their education.

2. Clear Skies Initiative -- a law that permitted power plants to continue spewing pollution into the air.

3. Healthy Forests Initiative -- a law that permitted more trees to be cut down. Hello, calling George Orwell.

4. USA Patriot Act (reminscent of the Patriot Missile deployed during Ronald Reagan's presidency) -- a law passed just after the 9/11 attacks which took away many civil liberties granted to us in the Bill of Rights.

Another area in Washington rife with euphemisms is the Department of Defense. In fact, "Department of Defense" is itself a euphemism, having been changed from the "War Department" in 1947. Here are some common euphemisms from the Department of Defense:

1. "Casualty." That means, a person who has been shot or blown up by a bomb, and either killed or wounded. It sounds more like an insurance term, like when your basement is flooded.

2. "Collateral damage." This one is especially insulting. It means, civilians who are unintentionally blown up when the military drops a bomb on a target.

3. "Rendition." This comes from "render," which is a vague verb that can mean "to give or make available" or "to cause to become." As used by your government, however, "rendition" means to nab a suspect, put a hood over his head, and fly him to a "black site" (a nice euphemism in itself) in another country where he can be tortured. We already have a word for this: "kidnapping."

4. "Contractors." That's how the Bush Administration describes the Blackwater USA private soldiers, or mercenaries, fighting in Iraq. I thought a "contractor" is the guy who builds the addition on my house.

A third rich source of Washington, DC euphemisms is the plethora of lobbying groups that spring up around every issue. Here are a few blatant examples:

1. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- this band of right-wingers proved to be about anything but "truth," as they slimed John Kerry in 2004 by telling numerous lies designed to denigrate Kerry's military service in Vietnam.

2. Citizens For a Sound Economy -- a group funded by big business that seeks to remove regulations on businesses.

3. Clearinghouse for Environmental Education, Advocacy and Research (CLEAR) -- an anti-environmental group funded by big corporations.

4. Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain -- a group funded largely by power companies, that fought efforts which would have tightened the Clean Air Act to reduce acid rain.

Perhaps the most egregious euphemism being thrown around Washington today is when George Bush says "we don't torture" but we do use "enhanced interrogation techniques" or "harsh interrogation methods." As was explained recently on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,"

STEWART: How is fake drowning, sleep deprivation, how isn’t that torture?
OLIVER: That is not torture.
OLIVER: Because we don’t torture.
STEWART: Meaning we don’t do those things?
OLIVER: No, no. Meaning if we do do those things, they must not be torture.

So next time you hear words like "truth," "fairness," "sensible" and "patriot" coming from official Washington, DC, try to avoid the urge to want to be euthanized.


At 8:07 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

The "double-talk" of 1984 is alive and well in 2007. I hadn't realized just how bad it was until I read your post. The sad truth is that most of America still hears only "patriot," "clear," and "healthy"; says "God bless America;" and puts another one of those magnetic ribbons emblazoned with "support our troops" on his SUV. We are in one deep pile of doo-doo!

At 1:46 PM, Blogger media concepts said...

If enough people put on their boots and grab their shovels, we can get out of it. Recognizing how people use euphemisms to manipulate thought, and then trying to keep one's own head clear from this manipulation, is a good start.


Post a Comment

<< Home