The hidden dangers of euphemisms

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An increase in bizarre euphemisms has been sneaking up on an unsuspecting public in recent years. Mark Peters wrote the essential update. Published on BBC on January 27, 2017.

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Just as a reminder – a euphemism is a polite expression used in place of words or phrases that otherwise might be considered harsh or unpleasant to hear. 

Euphemisms! They’re the worst. Or I should I say they’re a negative outcome benchmark?

Euphemistic language is the timeless enemy of anyone concerned with clarity. Straight shooters such as novelist George Orwell and comedian George Carlin have blasted soft, vague language, including Carlin’s classic lament that shellshock devolved into battle fatigue, then operational exhaustion, before finally morphing into the mouthful post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kellyann Conway Image via AP
Kellyann Conway Image via AP

There was recent outrage in the US over the Trump administration using alternative facts as a smokescreen for false or untrue statements. Other euphemisms are merely annoying, like when teachers call student weaknesses development opportunities.

Euphemisms are everywhere, but they tend to cluster within taboo subjects such as death, sex, and drugs—and giving people the axe, as no corporation would say. Few topics have accumulated as many euphemisms as the action called downsizing, making redundant, laying off, demising, and even absurd, clunky phrases like personnel surplus reduction. When businesses mask their actions with vague, robotic language, both clarity and people are the big losers.

The list of euphemisms for firing people is long and could fill a book. Workers can be attritioned, excessed, graduated, or even decruited, the evil twin of recruited. The suffix de- has proven prolific in this area, as future collectors of unemployment have been dehired and deselected when a company is in the process of destaffing or degrowth. Other terms take a more elaborate tack, as a recent MediaPost piece by Steve McClellan reads: “Publicis Groupe’s Starcom MediaVest Group laid off 80 staffers today as part of what the agency network called a ‘talent calibration’.” The pseudo-scientific flavour of that term makes actual lipstick on a pig look reasonable.

Other terms have a different source. When crowdsourcing was coined (or at least spread) in 2006 thanks to a Wired article by Jeff Howe, businesses gained a useful concept for tapping the so-called wisdom of crowds – even better, they found a path to free labour. Since then, there’s been fan-sourcing, friend-sourcing, sole-sourcing, dual-sourcing, and near-sourcing.

Many terms share a meaning that’s bad news for current job holders: right-sourcing, other-sourcing, multi-sourcing, and un-sourcing all involve shifting some or all jobs out of a company. These terms hearken back to outsourcing, the grandparent of such terms, which has been putting a smiley face on corporate manoeuverings since the late 1970s.

G. CarlinThe comedian Carlin suggested that the more syllables, the less trustworthy the term, and many humongous euphemisms validate his theory.

A mouthful like workforce imbalance correction is a testament to human creativity and malarkey. This is one of many real terms collected in Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceitful Language by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, who also spotted the preposterous synergy-related head count restructuring.

Of course, downsizing is only the tip of the jargon-berg. Businesses aren’t mentioned in the same breath as poets, but both have a persistent impulsive to rename their world, often in a way that makes others roll their eyes. Last year, lingerie company Neon Moon decided to ditch traditional size labels with some flattering verbiage: lovely, beautiful, and gorgeous. Those words may fit all egos, but good luck figuring out whether they fit your body.

We’ll never be rid
of euphemisms,
but it would be nice
to save them
for situations
that actually do
a little good.

In her annual roundup of “corporate guff” in the Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway recently produced another bumper crop of balderdash, including a question asked by Iain Roberts of design company Ideo: “How to activate insights around latent mobility or multimodal needs?” Perhaps that question was meant to be a Zen koan or enhanced interrogation method, to use a popular euphemism for torture. In addition to collecting terms such as “Hair Management System” (swimming cap) and “Life Performance Solutions” (socks), Kellaway spotted another all-star term for termination: “orderly ramp-down of about 3,000 persons.” Yes, that means 3,000 people lost their jobs.

Of course, euphemisms aren’t limited to the corporate world: they pop up everywhere, usually when there seems to be something to hide. Embarrassed by your wrinkles? Refer to them as laugh lines. Don’t want to use the word zombie in your show about zombies? Call them biters and walkers. Want to gloss over a sexual encounter? Say you had an overnight date. Want to discuss potential rights for robots, as the European Union soon will? Call them electronic persons. Does chatting with people sound too mundane? Say you’re engaging in a coterminous stakeholder engagement, to use a term produced by England’s Northampton Borough Council.

1984We’ll never be rid of euphemisms, but it would be nice to save them for situations that actually do a little good. If a person’s spouse died, saying they passed away is a much kinder choice than being slangy (kicked the bucket) or literal (fell off a roof). Euphemisms, in such circumstances, are our friends, but these reality-cushioning words make other friends who have a problem with cushion-hoarding. If you’re a manager who needs to fire someone, the use of vague verbiage adds insult to the axe wound of termination.

When discussing euphemisms, Orwell wrote, “A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.”

Self-cyborgification isn’t recommended by doctors, but I reckon the dehumanising of others is a worse sin—or, pardon me, moral lapse situation.

Mark Peters writes jokes on Twitter (@wordlust) and collects euphemisms in the Evasive Maneuvers column for Visual Thesaurus. He is also the author of ‘Bullshit: A Lexicon’.

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