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Reality Gets a Makeover with Words that Buff and Polish

April 17, 2003

What is a “sentinel event”? Well, it’s not a mistaken shooting by a soldier on guard duty. It’s something awful that a hospital does to you. If a surgeon cuts off the wrong leg or sews you up with a couple of needles inside, the words “malpractice” and “gross negligence” may occur to you. But the medical world prefers “sentinel event.” Since one euphemism often leads to another, reports of these events go to “risk management departments,” where a good deal of frantic damage control occurs.

Reality is always in need of buffing, so the euphemism industry is booming. “Virtual orchestra” is the new term for “non-orchestra,” when real-life musicians are replaced by electronic simulations or recordings. In our age of terrorism, many people are convinced that nearby nuclear power plants are especially vulnerable. Not to worry. The industry has begun to rename these plants as “energy centers.”

Since SUVs are under attack, they are known in some political circles as “enhanced light trucks.” Years ago, used cars became “previously owned” or “pre-owned.” Now they are “previously enjoyed” cars. (And a former spouse would therefore be … oh, never mind.)

Some upscale atheists have invented the word “brights” for folks who don’t believe in God. “We brights don’t believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny — or God,” says bright guy Daniel Dennett. By using the shiny new word, the people formerly known as atheists associate themselves with the Enlightenment, make a claim to high intelligence, and replace a negative word (non-theist or atheist) with a positive one. And if they are “brights,” then religious people must all be “dulls.”

Brit Hume of Fox News noticed that a New York Times story on the apparent use of other writers’ material by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin never once used the word plagiarism. Instead it referred to “unacknowledged repetition,” “derivative passages” and “inappropriate borrowing.” A reader wrote in to suggest that rather than getting a speeding ticket, “a motorist could be cited for inappropriate acceleration.”

Australians now talk a lot about “vertical villages,” known to most of us as “apartment buildings.” Several states have “furlough days,” a cheerier term than “forced unpaid holidays for state workers.”

One of the chores of euphemizing is to spot and refurbish any term the public doesn’t like. Since “slot machines” have a faintly negative image, the video version of the machines is known as “video lottery.” And “gambling” has given way to the elegant-sounding “gaming.”

“Eugenics” has a nasty history, so the designer-baby lobby is scrambling for a positive term to describe the killing of undesirable embryos and the selection of favorable ones. So far the choice seems to be “pre-implantation genetic screening.”

Since most people take a dim view of global warming, Republicans have responded to the crisis by using the non-urgent term “climate change.” “Tax-and-spend” policies (Republican usage) are “investments in people” to Democrats. (That isn’t actual spending — it’s saving through investing.) Since the word “vouchers” tests poorly in polls, Republicans use “school choice.” This vastly irritates Democrats, who favor every conceivable use of the word “choice” except for “school choice,” which has been vetoed by the teachers’ unions.

“Light pollution” is a reverse euphemism — an attempt to frame a minor inconvenience as a crisis that demands national attention and maybe a federal program. The inconvenience is that some cities are so brightly lighted at night that people who want to look at the stars can’t see them.

The words “epidemic” and “revolution” are used the same inflated way, as in “the revolution in eyelash treatment,” or “the epidemic of people with noisy candy wrappers in theaters.”

The Iraq war failed to produce the bonanza of euphemisms that many expected. But we did get “operational pause” (our troops seem to be stuck) and “possibly tailored intelligence,” a delicate New York Times phrase referring to the source of the uranium-from-Africa mention in the State of the Union speech.

“Non-traditional sexuality” refers to all sexual practices that are either criminal or likely to put large numbers of people into shock. If you liked the terms “polyamory” (wild promiscuity), “intergenerational intimacy” (child-molesting, pedophilia) and “power exchange” (sadomasochism), then you are bound to appreciate the new term “zoosexuality” (sex with animals). It replaces “bestiality,” which clearly lacks a positive image. Still, “zoosexuality” doesn’t have that tinkling sound you expect in good cocktail-party conversation. Maybe they should try “transspecies intimacy.”

From → Language

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