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Many Phrases Could Vie for ‘Euphemism of the Year’

February 22, 2004

“Wardrobe malfunction” is of course the euphemism of the year, a staggering achievement in language distortion. But there are many worthy contenders for silver and bronze medals in the language-debasing competition.

Some medical euphemisms now appear in the fine print of your staggeringly large hospital bill. You may see charges for “disposable mucus recovery systems” (Kleenex), “thermal therapy” (a bag of ice), and an “oral administration fee” (the charge for handing you a pill in a paper cup). A dose of three pills, though delivered in a single paper cup, may require three separate oral administration fees.

How about these terms for firing workers: “facility and cost rationalizations,” “dehiring,” “normal involuntary attrition,” and “negative employee retention.” When a state agency lays off workers for some time, without pay, it calls this practice “furloughing.”

In its science teaching standards, the state of Georgia changed the word “evolution” to “biological changes over time,” then backtracked to “evolution” when protests arose.

The Bush administration contributed “temporary steel safeguard measures” (tariffs), “healthy forests” (more logging) plus “earned legalization,” “regularization” and “normalization” (amnesty for illegal immigrants — sorry, undocumented workers).

Did the Agriculture department announce frankly that it ordered the killing of 450 cattle because of mad cow disease? Of course not. The announcement said it had decided to depopulate the bull calf operation in Mabton, Wash. The department was just negatively retaining some cows. Or maybe placing them on permanent furlough.

Other political euphemisms include “managed” or “fair” trade (protectionism) and “sustainable utilization,” a comforting term for despoiling the environment while claiming that there’s really nothing to worry about. The term has been used to cover overzealous mining and foresting, as well as the trophy killing of big-game animals in Africa. On safari, you might call out, “Look dear, you sustainably utilized that rhino!”

Remember the under-the-table funds that went to members of the International Olympics Committee when Salt Lake City was picked as an Olympic site? They weren’t bribes, said longtime IOC member Dick Pound of Canada. They were “payments, I think, to encourage good feelings about Salt Lake.”

Harvard academic Martin Feldstein told the economics conference in Davos, Switzerland, last month that he doesn’t like the terms “weak dollar” and “strong dollar.” Well, then how is the dollar doing? Next year it will be in a more competitive position, Feldstein said, weakly.

At St. Mary’s Catholic Church in South Brisbane, Australia, the priests are apparently no longer priests. They are “mass presiders,” a term popping up here and there in other countries as well. “Body bags” (Vietnam war) and “human remains pouches” (the Gulf War) are now “transfer tubes” in Iraq, a term (like “choice” for abortion) that eliminates any hint that death might be involved.

The British have a new word for military retreat, “exfiltration.” This is not a great euphemism, but it sounds lots better than “running away.”

China’s economic expansion under stern one-party rule gave rise to several euphemisms, including “cloaked capitalism” and “soft Leninism.” Why not “totalitarian freedom”?

Many gas stations have figured out that if you decide to charge more for credit card purchases, you can always describe the increase as a discount for those who pay cash. Several takeout restaurants in Australia now advertise a 10 percent discount if you pick up the food yourself. This means that a 10 percent charge has been added for all deliveries.

Kansas City, Mo., is establishing a “compassion zone” for homeless people just outside the downtown freeway loop. This is an upbeat way of announcing that the downtown area and most of the rest of the city are now compassion-free zones from which vagrants and homeless people will be expelled.

Many universities use the same trick to control free speech on campus. They announce small “free-speech zones,” thus establishing 99 percent of their campuses as places where speeches and protests are forbidden.

“War on terror” is a widely overlooked euphemism. “Terror” isn’t a party to the war, but militant Islam is. Reuters famously refuses to call terrorists “terrorists” because the news service thinks it’s a subjective term.

The BBC says its reporters may not call Saddam Hussein a former dictator. Staffers must refer to him as “the deposed former president.” No word yet on whether Hitler can be called a dictator. Oops. That sounds way too subjective. Make it “the former legally selected leader of the Third Reich.” Whatever.

From → Language

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