By Jason Klaiber @J_Klaibs
People need to limit their use of euphemisms. When referring to something they deem unpleasant, many people substitute harsh yet direct language with these polite yet vague expressions. Euphemisms serve as a roundabout way to mask the truth and avoid offending others.
Euphemisms don’t present as much damage in the context of stand-up comedy, for example, wherein such expressions heighten the hilarity of many routines. However, using them in fields such as business or politics veers closer to being harmful. Businessmen and government officials often soften the blow of their words to cover up actions, policies or any other unsightly reality. These evasions of clarity mislead people.
Think “alternative fact.” This term, used earlier this year by President Donald Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway in an interview with Meet the Press, acts as a subtle replacement for “lie” or “falsehood.”
Such abuses of the English language don’t end there.
A word like “downsizing” sounds like the result of partaking in a weight loss program, while “normal involuntary attrition” conjures up the thought of a common health defect. In actuality, the use of either one of these terms meets the same definition: a company intends to fire employees or has already done so.
In military life, “collateral damage” refers to the killing or wounding of civilians or the unintentional destruction of property. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” means torture. While it sounds more like a compliment a theater critic would direct at a performer, “extraordinary rendition” actually concerns the CIA-sponsored, unlawful kidnapping and transfer of suspected terrorists from one country to another.
During World War II, the term “relocation center” meant the Japanese internment camps in the United States.
Between World War I and the end of Vietnam War, the term “shell shock”— the psychological distress caused by warfare—transformed into “post-traumatic stress disorder,” which sounds less immediate and serious. In his 1990 special Doin’ It Again, comedian George Carlin said, “If we’d have still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time.”
In 2013, former CIA director David Petraeus apologized for “slipping his moorings,” a euphemism for losing one’s sense of right and wrong, when he had extramarital sex with his biographer.
Somewhere else along the line, “passing away” became a replacement for the word “dying.” The action of “putting to sleep” became the gentle-sounding alternative to “euthanizing.” Once buried after death, a person “pushes up daisies.” Poor people have been labeled as “economically disadvantaged.” Crippled people have instead been labeled as “differently abled.” Genocide has become otherwise worded as “ethnic cleansing.” Using such euphemisms lessens the gravity of dreadful situations.
The unwillingness to use or hear anything perceived as too profane, in turn, makes people too sensitive. People shouldn’t hide under euphemisms to feel comfortable facing reality, no matter how unpleasant reality may be. Imprecise words found in these euphemisms extract the humanity out of language. Once words and phrases become so obscure that they can mean anything, they mean nothing. Society requires the growth of simple, straightforward communication to elude this unnecessary confusion once and for all.