Original date: October 2010
“A Euphemism is a nice word for a nasty thing”Christopher Hitchens
A euphemism not simply a play on words but more so a turn of phrase that can be used to change the emphasis of a message’s intent or its meaning. This method of expression has enjoyed much use by its practitioners and has become so pervasive that it may not be surprising to learn that it has normalized itself into our daily speech. Does this matter? It is believed by many that the language we use in our daily lives’ guides (and perhaps limits) the way we think and view the world. Like looking through colored glass, the connotations of certain words and phrases can result in a wide variety of interpretations depending on the listener. This molding of thought is technically referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but can be more aptly referred to as Linguistic Relativity.
The late comedian George Carlin has performed more than one memorable stand-up routine regarding some of the euphemisms that we use. For example, the evolution of the term “shell-shock” from World War 1 became “battle fatigue” in World War 2, and later “operational exhaustion” in the Korean War, post-Vietnam as “Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder” which we still use today. “Shell-shock” is an emotionally charged term which can evoke vivid images in one’s mind to how the condition is obtained. Perhaps in order to allay this emotional connotation the phrase was changed into something more abstract, more sterile which no longer carries the same emotional attachment. Another example of an emotionally charged term which has been euphemized is the term which refers to overweight people. I recall having a conversation with a strongly liberal person and couldn’t recall the name of a particular political film-maker. I used the word “fat” to assist in qualifying his identity (Michael Moore) instead a more tactful word. Though this was an effective means of communication, it is not generally a socially acceptable term to some subcultures to use due to the emotions it may have attached to it. Changing a term does not change the underlying condition, nor the underlying subject; it changes the interpretation.
The manipulation of language and hence human interpretation can have a far more negative impact than possibly hurt feelings. One should be reminded of George Orwell’s Newspeak described in his book 1984; a dystopian novel about a North Korean style autocratic society where the citizens are controlled through the careful use of language and other propaganda. While it was a work of fiction (and a warning), propaganda has been a historical tool for manipulating social opinion for generations. One example is the historical poster “Beat back the Hun” with World War 1 Liberty Bonds. The power of euphemism comes not from what is explicitly stated but rather what is inferred.