A Gresham’s Law for words

Everytime we land in a tricky situation (i.e. a mess), we will resort to tampering with the language to make things seem rosier than they are. That’s called a euphemism; in plainer English one might say we’re putting a gloss. Ever since the Great Recession happened (this term now favoured by economists like Paul Krugman), businesses and governments have tried to make light of it. So we encounter the phrase ‘economic downturn‘ instead. Which is a way to perhaps say, “Um, it’s not our fault really. Stuff happened you see, and the economic downturn happened, we didn’t really cause it.”

And when that happens, companies will often ‘let an employee go‘ rather than sack him or her, trying to imply that it was the employee who was wanting to leave. That is because they are ‘rightsizing‘ and not downsizing, implying that they are actually cutting flab, and not dismissing productive workers.

Government is of course the most prolific user of euphemisms. Every spy novel reader knows the CIA’s infamous phrase ‘terminate with extreme prejudice‘, which is simply their way of saying assassinate. Then there are ‘terminological inexactitudes‘ and ‘being economical with the truth‘ when someone is lying; and ‘creative accounting‘ (fraud) and ‘enhanced interrogation‘ (torture).

India’s most famous euphemism is easily ‘Police Action’, used to describe the invasion of Hyderabad. The ‘Emergency’ was at the least a constitutional device, even though it hid the government’s true intentions at that time. ‘Encounters‘ are something we all know. We use ‘number one‘ and ‘number two‘ to describe actions otherwise inadmissible in print, ‘bathroom‘ to describe a place where we certainly are not going to have baths, and ‘eve-teasing‘ to make some horrid crime seem less horrid.

The Economist describes a few euphemisms here,

Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding. The Pentagon’s practice of enhanced interrogation is torture, just as its practice of extraordinary rendition is probably torture contracted out to foreigners. France’s proposed solidarity contribution on airline tickets is a tax. The IMF’s relational capitalism is nepotism or corruption. The British solicitor-general’s evidentiary deficiency was no evidence, and George Bush’s reputational problem just means he is mistrusted.

The newspaper (it’s a magazine that calls itself a newspaper) also talks of ‘Military Information Support Operations‘, a 14-syllable euphemism for propaganda. This is what it calls ‘syllabic inflation’, the use of terms with more syllables to dilute or obfuscate the impact of their shorter, sharper equivalents.

A consequence of the use of euphemisms is that they drive out the original word from the language, but since they have the same meaning, can acquire the negative connotations they were meant to hide. Examples are ‘Concentration Camp’ and ‘physically handicapped’, which cannot now be used as euphemisms anymore. This is in a way, an application of Gresham’s Law in Economics (bad money will drive out good), to language.

By the way, a dysphemism is a word that replaces an ordinary word with a harsher equivalent; often as an insult or to exaggerate a situation. The commonest one we know is the term ‘snail-mail’ used to describe typed or handwritten letters. Another one is ‘dead tree edition’ to describe the physical newspaper compared to its cyber-avatar.

To end, I could not do better than to cite Kipling, “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

We’d love to hear some more euphemisms and dysphemisms from you.

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About ozymandias

What am I? A body and brain, products of carbon concatenation chemistry, an intelligence and conscience to enable bits of DNA evolve. Maybe a pharaoh, maybe a dung-beetle, never more than a safe conduit for some genes.
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