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Evasive Language Results in Suboptimal Outcomes

February 26, 2006

We are awash in euphemisms and evasive language.

“Hull loss,” a term used by the airlines, means a plane crash in ordinary English. “A pluralistic plan” is a hiring quota, and “semantic violence” usually means criticism or yelling.

Mercenaries are now “security contractors.” “Sheltering in place” is a happy-talk reference to quarantine, according to an NPR report. New Orleans police rejected the term “looting” after Katrina, but they conceded “the possibility of appropriation of non-essential items from businesses.”

William Lutz, author of “Doublespeak,” reports that if a doctor in Britain removes the wrong kidney, this is written down as an “error of laterality.” Also in Britain, the Church of England suggests that the words “living in sin” should be banished and replaced by a “covenanted relationship.”

In Santa Barbara, patrons in an “adult” club cannot hand a tip to the “exotic dancers,” but they are urged to put money into “a non-human gratuity receptacle.”

In the insult war on the Web, irate liberal bloggers call their opponents “wingnuts,” whereas angry conservative bloggers prefer to call liberal antagonists “moonbats.”

The word “liberal” continues to fade. Those on the left prefer “progressive,” and the term “liberal Republican” is now obsolete. The media use “moderate Republican,” which has the added polemical advantage of implying that conservative Republicans are immoderate. “Advocacy” is the generic Washington word for lobbying. “Out of the mainstream” means “not on our side.”

Individual congressmen are enriching the language. Sen. Charles Schumer contributed “deeply held beliefs,” a reference to his fear that a Catholic on the Supreme Court might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Rep. John Murtha gave us the euphemism “redeployment,” which is smoother than simply saying, “Let’s quit Iraq now.”

Leaking closely held government or corporate information is a terrible offense, a gross violation of duty and maybe even treason. Unless, of course, you agree with the leaker. In that case, he is a “whistleblower.” If demonstrators and agitators take their case to the streets, even in a muscular and intimidating way, we needn’t worry. They are simply engaging in “direct action,” which sounds much better than “Brownshirt behavior.”

Torture and torture-light are discussed in calming language: “environmental manipulation,” “stress positions,” “sensory manipulation.” “Enhanced interrogation” (torture) has been used so much that it seems to be settling in as a normal term, even though such enhancement can be fatal. The same sort of semi-acceptance may explain why “extraordinary rendition” (outsourced torture) is mostly dropping its “extraordinary” and entering the common language as just plain “rendition.”

The Palestinians made a language breakthrough after a few, um, activists who were trying to shoot a missile into Israel managed to blow themselves up instead. The Palestinians referred to this as “a work accident.” “Targeted killings,” which will need to be replaced with a true euphemism, is a preferred new term of choice for “assassination.” “Soft compliant entry” is militarese for a raid on an Iraq dwelling that doesn’t force allied troops to kick down the door.

Educationese continues to favor words that cloak failure, so as not to impair self-esteem. “Negative gain” sometimes appears as a description of falling test scores. A number of schools have eliminated “F” as a mark, and “suboptimal outcome” means failure. In Britain, members of the Professional Association of Teachers suggested that schools drop the word “fail.” The teachers wanted to use “deferred success,” as in, “Good news, Mom! I’ve been successful on my math test, in a positive, deferred way. Aren’t you proud?”
Other additions to educationese include “mandatory discontinued attendance” (suspension) and “post-instructional behavioral adjustment period” (detention).
In U.N.-speak, the term “unsafe abortions” means illegal abortions. It is used by those who wish to correct the lack of safety by making abortion a legal right worldwide. “Anti-Zionism” at any U.N. gathering translates easily as “anti-Semitism.”

“Cruelty-free” was a term used by animal rights activists to lament testing of drugs and consumer products on animals. Now the term has migrated to “cruelty-free cream” made of soy and “cruelty-free chocolate” made with no milk, though the old-fashioned cruel chocolate probably tastes better. A “flexitarian” is one who eats vegetarian dishes at home, but will eat meat, fish or fowl at times, usually when dining out.

On our madcap campuses, PC folk keep inventing terms that make speech sound like action, so if they want to punish someone, they can do so while strongly (and hypocritically) defending free speech. “Expressive behavior,” “verbal conduct” and “verbal action” all mean “speech.” “Non-contact sexual harassment” includes jokes, rumor, or any comment that a woman might consider inappropriate.

The language game requires players to insert a strong negative word for what your opponent wants (e.g., the death tax) and eliminate similar hot-button words used on your side. Just as “abortion” has virtually disappeared from the names and language of abortion-rights groups, the word “embryo” is fading from the vocabulary of those who favor “embryonic stem-cell research.” Since polls show that the public reacts negatively to the news that minute human embryos are created and destroyed in the research, the media now speak of “early stem cells.” The troubling word “cloning” is fading too; “therapeutic cloning” is replaced by its technical term, “somatic cell nuclear transfer.”

Massive layoffs in the auto industry have given us “volume-related production schedule adjustment” (GM usage) and “career alternative enhancement program” (Chrysler usage). And when the boss says, “We have to leverage our resources,” he means, “You will be working weekends.” If you don’t, you risk being “deinstalled” (fired).

From → Language

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