The Language of Evasion, Hypocrisy, Prudery and Deceit

February 17, 2014

Why don’t we just say and write what we mean?

Instead, we often communicate in code.  Apparently, we’ve concluded that the people we talk to or write to can’t handle the truth, because we increasingly substitute euphemisms for real communication.

A euphemism puts a yellow smiley face on what we really mean.  It is a verbal cosmetic, a word or phrase applied like makeup to a wrinkled, sagging reality.  It seeks to be comforting, but is often annoying.  It is, as R.W. Holder put it, “the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery and deceit.”

Uncomfortable realities, such as death or job loss, bring out the worst verbal obstructions.  Today, no one dies.  People “pass on” and even pets are “put to sleep.”  If you’ve “lost” a “loved one,” unlike losing a set of reading glasses, you’re never going to find him.  A lost loved one is not misplaced – he’s dead – but it would be bad form to say so.

When we “sleep with” someone, we’re not really sleeping, and it sure beats being put to sleep.  We used to have trashmen pick up our trash and dispose of it in a dump.  Now we use “sanitation workers” to dispose of “waste” in a “landfill.”  Trained assassins are “hit men” and they don’t kill people, they “knock them off” or “whack” them.  Who wouldn’t rather get whacked than killed?

Business Use of Emphemisms

In the business world, euphemisms are de rigueur.  Employers “empower” employees, by giving them more responsibility without more pay.  Businesses seek “sustainable business models,” which means “getting employees to find ways to save money by convincing them it’s good for the environment.”

We refer to firing people as “downsizing” or the cringe-worthy “rightsizing,” but we don’t refer to hiring as “upsizing” or “wrongsizing.”  Your boss may need to “let you go,” even though he’s not literally holding on to you.  Acquisitions are almost always referred to as “mergers,” even though the larger of the two companies is usually gobbling up the smaller company.  Following its acquisition of Gillette, Proctor & Gamble anticipated a 6,000-person “enrollment reduction.”

Managers are never fired, but they often “step down” to “pursue other interests,” and when they do, they can afford to do so because they are given a “golden parachute.”  What that really means is that the manager was performing so poorly, the company’s board was willing to pay him off to get rid of him.

One company recently asked us to refer to “employees” as “people” in the company newsletter, as though the term were more humane.  It’s not as though “employee” is a negative term.  Anyone who resents being called an employee is probably not a good one.

The intent seemed to be to break down barriers between employees and management, as if there’s no difference between the guy who cleans the toilets and the CEO.  How empowering!  It’s only a matter of time before the company president starts referring to his employees as “his peeps.”

The financial world is also loaded with euphemisms.  We can have a stock market “correction,” as though the market were on the wrong path when it headed up and now is on the right path as it heads down.  You may lose your life’s savings as a result of a “correction,” but you wouldn’t want to see the market on the wrong course, would you?

The Federal Reserve Board refers to bond buying as “quantitative easing,” presumably because “quantitative easing” sounds so though The Fed is doing something much more meaningful and complex than buying bonds.  The Fed also uses “forward guidance,” which is announcing in advance what The Fed plans to do.

Public relations professionals – using the term loosely – are among the worst euphemizers.  When a splash of what Quinten Crisp calls “diplomatic cologne” is called for, they sometimes bathe in it.  The previously trendy Lululemon Athletica, having suffered through quality issues and management errors, recently announced that it has seen its sales “decelerate meaningfully.”

Use of the term “native content” for advertorials (i.e., paid editorial content) also fails the smell test.

Euphemisms are at their worst when they are combined with other grammatical offenses, such as capitalization of words that are not proper nouns and overuse of modifiers.  Our example is such a perversion of the English language, it may make you nauseous.

Announcing a deal to provide content about sustainability under the brand of household goods giant Unilever, Guardian Labs’ public relations staff wrote that, “Guardian Labs is built around the unique philosophy of Open Ideas that reflects the Open Journalism proposition of the Guardian as a whole.  At its heart is a collaborative and participative approach to developing brand stories that resonate amongst the highly engaged communities across all the Guardian platforms.”

Dissecting what’s wrong with this passage would take pages.  The Guardian offers “Open Ideas” and “Open Journalism,” while the rest of the world apparently keeps its ideas and journalism closed.  Fortunately, it’s only a “proposition,” which must mean this philosophy has not been adopted yet.  The approach is both “collaborative” and “participative,” although it’s difficult to be participative if you aren’t collaborating.

The philosophy behind The Guardian’s new cash cow is “unique,” alright.  And hopefully it will remain unique.

What Government Excels At

If anyone beats public relations practitioners for inventive euphemisms, it’s the federal government.  Many politicians are advocates of “single-payor healthcare,” which is code for socialized medicine.  “Affirmative action” addresses discrimination by enforcing hiring based on race.  Then there is the Affordable Care Act, which is making healthcare unaffordable.

We tip toe around words that might offend, but the resulting euphemism is often more offensive than if we were to communicate in English.  Call it what you will, but death remains death and being downsized still makes you jobless.



And let's not forget the always entertaining yet meanignless modifiers such as "best in class," "cutting-edge," and "state of the art" which refuse to die - I mean, pass on.

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