Josna Rege

271. Yellowcake and other Euphemisms

In Food, health, Inter/Transnational, Media, Politics, Stories, Words & phrases, Work, writing on April 30, 2014 at 3:41 am

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yellowcake (geoinfo.nmt.edu; photo: Cogema, Inc.)

yellowcake (geoinfo.nmt.edu; photo: Cogema, Inc.)

Funny, isn’t it, how the most dangerous things are given the most benign names? This is especially the case if they make a profit for someone. Nuclear power facilities, for example: why are they called “plants”? They don’t grow naturally out of the soil but are entirely man-made (and I use ‘man’ advisedly). The only thing that grows as a result of these plants is cancer. The same is true for uranium ore. It is radioactive and releases deadly radon gas when mined, leaving the miners with a dramatically increased incidence of lung cancer (Listen to this program on the medical effects of uranium mining); then it undergoes a process of milling, which results in the so-called yellowcake, as if to suggest that it’s good enough to be served up with ice cream. (See the trailer of Joachim Tschirner’s documentary Yellowcake: The Dirt Behind Uranium).

original_Rapeseed-bottle-RGB_217_231_c1Another misleading naming practice is to change the name of something if it has a negative association in the public mind or if it is likely to give a bad name to the corporation with which it is associated. Some of these practices are less reprehensible than others. For example, Canola oil is a strain of rapeseed oil developed in Canada; the name was changed for obvious reasons, and since the oil is low in saturated fats, it was readily accepted by an increasingly health-conscious public. But to return to the nuclear power industry for another, more pernicious example. The near-disastrous 1957 fire in the core at the British Windscale nuclear complex and the ensuing popular opposition caused British Nuclear Fuels to change the name to Sellafield. It didn’t make the facility any safer, though.

The military is the chief manufacturer of euphemisms. War and the machinery of death aren’t very pretty things, and would be a hard sell if they weren’t dressed up in sheep’s clothing. Starting with war itself: if you were to go by the military’s language alone, you’d think that they were making love, not war. They don’t fight the enemy, they enter into an “engagement” with them; if they want to stop short of an all-out Armageddon, they call it a “limited engagement.” Rather than killing a person, they “neutralize” or “take him/her out”; rather than torturing, they engage in a bit of ‘coercive interrogation.’

In 2002, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kenneth Adelman, assistant to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, predicted that conquering it would be a “cakewalk” (not that that was so easy either). Piece of cake, eh? Wonder if it was yellow?

yellow_cake

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  1. You’re entirely right about euphemisms and the language of warmongers. The same applies to politics and business: phrases coined to take the sting out of policies soon revert to meaningless clichés.

    I’m reminded of a certain Prime Minister (he shall be nameless, lest I appear politically biased, but you may know what I mean) who constantly bleats on about something or other being “unacceptable”; what he means is, not that it’s socially or morally wrong, but that he wants to reassure the public that he’s going to do something about it — whether he intends to or not or whether it’s in his power to do anything about it — to maintain his own image of righteousness. Mind you, the same can be said of politicians of all hues.

    • Thanks for this, and yes, you’re entirely correct (and put it so well) about the “phrases coined to take the sting out of policies” which become “meaningless clichés.” There are also the phrases coined to demonize policies which then pass into common use, with people forgetting their original political motivation. I bristle very time I hear programs like social security being called “entitlements,” when people have earned them by having contributed to them all their working lives. Yes, they are entitled to them, but the word “entitled” is designed to have a negative connotation, suggesting that “these people” wrongly arrogate to themselves the right to demand service that drain public funds. But nowadays everyone, whether liberal or conservative, uses the word, and have seemingly forgotten its original intent.Thanks again–such fun to read your comment.

  2. Interesting and important to note these things.

    • Thanks for your comment, Rashna, here and on Facebook. Of course, the (mis)use of language to mislead is endlessly distressing to us English teachers, something we have to point out again and again to each new batch of students.

  3. Just keep on keeping on! Patience,Temperance,Fortitude, and last but not least, Justice,
    These are words whose meanings need to be remembered and refreshed in our collective memories, as C.S. Lewis so aptly put it.

    • Thank you, dear Marianne. This is so important to remember. I’m not complaining about having to teach these things again and again; well, I am complaining a little, but the sad thing is that we don’t seem to get smarter with each successive generation. Instead, each generation seems to have to make the mistakes all over again. Why can’t we built on the previous generation’s wisdom? I suppose we have to trust that consciousness is growing, deepening slowly, get better at what we do, and as you say, just “keep on keepin’ on” (one of my father’s favorite sayings, too). x J

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