Josna Rege

497. Euphemisms

In blogs and blogging, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 10, 2021 at 2:02 am

This is the fifth entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

By definition, idioms have a meaning “not deducible from those of the individual words” that make them up; their meaning is metaphorical and can only be divined through usage. Euphemisms are a class of idioms that double down on this definition by deliberately concealing their meaning for the purpose of softening something embarrassing or unpleasant.

As R.W. Holder put it in his How Not to Say What You Mean, euphemisms are the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery and deceit. They are frequently deployed to skirt the subjects of death (as in “passed”–like a kidney stone?), bodily functions (unfortunately named “comfort stations” for public toilets), and sexual misconduct ( a “player” for a sexual predator)—all sexual conduct (“making whoopee”), for that matter. They may be quite acceptable when they seek to comfort or protect, for example, a person who is grieving, although sometimes I wonder whether beating around the bush protects the bereaved or the speaker. In fact, I think that euphemisms most often serve to protect the speaker from discomfort–or worse, from a public outcry or even criminal prosecution.

Businesses routinely employ euphemisms when giving their workers the boot, attempting to put a better public face on what is a sad and ugly business any way you look at it. “Letting them go” is the least of it, since “I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go,” suggests reluctance to part with the employee. When someone is made redundant, the passive construction suggests that it was no one’s decision, just a consequence of the March of Progress. When downsizing—sorry, rightsizing—demands mass layoffs, they are often referred to as trimming the fat, as if the lazy workers are all that stand in the way of a leaner, meaner organization.

But the most pernicious deception, in my view, is practiced by so-called intelligence organizations and the military. Even their names are euphemisms. Until 1949 the combined departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force had been called the War Department because that was what it did; soon after WWII was over, in 1949, the United States, now the ruler of the Free World, renamed it the Department of Defense. It now appeared that the nation with by far the world’s largest military and arms industry, the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, was not a bully or a warmonger, but a defender of freedom and democracy. And as for military intelligence, well, that’s an oxymoron as well as a euphemism. In this regard I recommend an illuminating 2019 article (and podcast) by Stephen J. Thorne, Euphemisms, Acronyms, and Outright Lies: The Language of War  and a recent article by Margot Williams on euphemisms used by apologists of torture at Guantánamo Bay.

Here are just a few of the military euphemisms which vie for the most sickening in my book:  
conflict: war (John Prine’s Sam Stone hits this nail on the head.)
enhanced interrogation: torture
extraordinary rendition: torture by proxy
taking [someone] out: killing
collateral damage: civilian casualties
friendly fire: accidental shooting by someone on one’s own side.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, 2006 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If you’ve been following my posts in this anachronidioms series you may be wondering in what sense these euphemisms are anachronistic. Sadly, they’re not, in that they’re still very much with us. However, we forget their relatively recent origins at our peril. Several of these terms have been in use for decades—as slang, in private military circles, or, if used in the print media, then only in quotation marks—but have officially entered the language quite recently, since the 1990s or early 2000s. Learning of the context and purpose of their emergence may help immunize us against accepting them as normal.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Dear Josna

    You have had fun, just found your site! I must look around some more.

    In the meantime I thought you might like my definition of euphemism in my post link below.

    I am going to have a look at your British-isms post now as I am British.

    Kind regards

    Baldmichael The resoluteprotector’sson

  2. Excellent piece as usual – DOD – chilling…

    • Thank you! Yes, it’s so obvious when one looks at it, but it doesn’t take long for a change like that to become normalized. Creating the Department of Homeland Security was another such move that I’ve written about in another post. Best wishes, J

  3. Just joined this today- I know it’s a bit late, but am all caught up now. You are so articulate!
    I am very proud of you, Jojo!
    Excellent and a bit terrifying at the same time!
    I have been caught up with all my renovations and ignored e-mail for a few days!
    Luckily I can join you now.
    Keep it up!
    Marianne OX

    • Thank you, dear Marianne! I’m sure you have got much more done than I have in the past few days. I got overwhelmed with work in the very first week and am now four days behind. I’ve been considering dropping out, but enjoy it so much. And now I know that you’re reading I’m all the more motivated to continue. x J

  4. I hadn’t really thought about how the change from War Department to Department of Defense is actually incredibly powerful. Words matter. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • Thank you, Lynnette! Yes, just the one word makes a tremendous difference. I learned of this for the first time in preparing to write the entry. It’s good to meet you and I will come visit your blog as soon as I can. J

  5. Euphemism is a sort of an art — to camouflage what is really meant. International diplomacy is all about that, everything carefully couched in well-crafted words and phrases, and to get the full import one has really read between the lines.

    E for Electronics City (Showcasing the city of Bengaluru)

    • You’re right about diplomacy, Pradeep. I think I would be a walking disaster as a diplomat, since I tend to blurt out what comes to mind and regret it when the damage has been done. Your comment reminds me that euphemisms can have a value. As you say, couching the messages in carefully worded phrases that can be variously interpreted allows for a subtle process of give and take without anyone losing face.

  6. Hari OM
    True, all this. I also am inclined to think it says more about the wish of the speaker to defray ‘trouble’ rather than any sensibility towards the listener. Though let us not forget that euphemism is used in its particular form of ‘double entendre’ to entertain also. Well, if one allows for the ‘hint hint nudge nudge’ form of entertainment. Admittedly, this is falling out of use (no more Two Ronnies, Morecombe and Wise et al) as anything relating at all to the difference between the sexes now feels totally ‘dirty’. … but therein lies a whole other discussion!!!

    So glad you are continuing, Josna – I was worried when you commented you might give up!!! I’ve only just found you… &*> (I’ll be sticking around beyond…) YAM xx

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