Euphemisms Aren't Cute When They're Dishonest
by Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March

For sale: Cozy 1920s cottage with charming original fixtures plus modern touches, including a whole-house fan and security system. A great starter home. Tree-shaded yard awaits the homeowner with a green thumb. Centrally located and so close to public transit you won't need a car.

Translation: A cramped bungalow with 80-year-old electrical wiring and plumbing of questionable reliability. The small size may be an advantage because the whole-house fan and the window air-conditioner unit installed in the living room struggle when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees. The tree-shaded yard not only awaits but desperately needs a homeowner with a green thumb because very little vegetation survives under the canopy of tree branches, and the tree roots have surfaced like woody varicose veins throughout the yellowed lawn. The condition of the sewer pipes is anyone's guess. The busy street on which the house is located is, indeed, a corridor for buses, which squeal to a stop every 20 minutes right in front of the house at all hours of the day and night. The buses turning right at the corner roll to a stop once again at the railroad tracks, down which trains rumble past the backyard of the house. But this home is located so close to the warehouses and manufacturing plants of the central business district that you may be able to walk to work. Since a car is hardly necessary, the lack of a garage with this house is of relatively little consequence. This is, indeed, a "starter" home for someone who intends to move on as soon as possible.

Writers pride themselves on their mastery of the nuances of language and their ability to lathe a phrase of delicacy or evoke a teardrop or mobilize action. But the province of powerfully persuasive writing does not belong exclusively to novelists, playwrights and journalists. Marketers and sales representatives are often remarkably adept in manipulating the language to suit their needs. In pursuit of romancing the product to underscore appeal for prospective buyers, marketers and salespeople may engage in beguiling techniques that selectively emphasize advantages while concealing other information. Unfortunately, public servants have adopted the same techniques in order to advance the objectives of their government agencies or conceal episodes of mismanagement, misappropriation of funds, or other unethical or illegal activities. The elevation of obfuscation to an art form has contributed to the level of cynicism that pervades contemporary society.

What else but cynicism should a company that calls a layoff an "involuntary separation" expect? Administrators unblinkingly announce that the employee suspected of embezzlement or extortion or some other crime has been "placed on administrative leave." No, the employee wasn't placed ON anything, but rather suspended FROM duty." What, after all, is "administrative" leave? On that status, the employee is administering nothing. "Administrative leave" is a euphemism for removal from duty.

A euphemism is one word used in place of another. Euphemistic writing involves use of a polite or vague term as a substitute for one considered harsh, blunt or offensive. The practice is not new. In years past, an employer would explain a firing by saying the company "had to let the employee go," as if freeing a caged animal who had been struggling to escape. Today organizations also resort to euphemisms to exaggerate, to protect themselves from potential embarrassment or legal action, and to disguise dishonesty. In the process, the euphemism exaggerates the deceit.

Euphemisms are insidious. Once introduced, these concocted terms spread like crabgrass and take root in our own speech patterns as we unquestionably accept and embrace them. Military forces and government agencies are euphemism mills. The U.S. government agency that collects federal income tax, the Internal Revenue Service, euphemistically excludes the word "tax" from its name. Following World War II, the name of the U.S. Department of War was changed to the Department of Defense. But many euphemisms are the progeny of business management consultants, who appear to base their credibility upon the number of buzzwords they introduce to their enamored disciples in their conference "workshops." Consider the following short list of euphemisms, heard in common usage or read in news publications, along with their honest definitions.

ETHNIC CLEANSING: Extermination, genocide, pogrom.
HUMAN BIODYNAMICS: Physical education.
ISSUE: Problem.
PHYSICALLY CHALLENGED: Disabled (itself a euphemism for the previously discarded word "crippled").
PRE-OWNED CAR: Used car.
SOLUTION: Computer software program, or any other product.
SOMATIC PRACTITIONER: Massage therapist.
STUDIO APARTMENT: One-room apartment.
SUBSTANCE: Illegal drug.
SUBSTANCE ABUSE: Drug addiction.
UNDERPRIVILEGED: Poor; low-income.
UNDOCUMENTED WORKER: Illegal immigrant.

Some euphemisms are intended to shield the innocent or diminish discomfort. Parents invent cute words for their toddlers to express excretory functions. We speak of death as "passing on." But the "passing" allegory, suggesting a journey to another plane of existence, seems incongruous with another colloquial reference involving that word: "passed out." The word "special" is widely used in reference to people with developmental disabilities, previously known as mental retardation. While "mental retardation" can be considered a harsh label, neither "developmental disability" nor "special" really describes or properly names the condition. What type of developmental disability? Development of the human body involves far more than the brain. The word "special" properly means "surpassing what is common or usual; exceptional" or "distinct among others of a kind; singular." In the latter sense, we are all special. But the former sense is applied to achievement above the norm, rather than diminished capabilities. While many developmentally disabled people do compensate remarkably well for their limitations, the use of the word "special" to describe their medical condition is imprecise and paternalistic.

Companies boast of their "value-added" services as if they were extraordinary. But what, in reality, does the phrase "value-added" mean? What value has been added? If the meaning is intended to encompass installation and repair service along with sale of products, wouldn't the term "full-service reseller" make more sense?

Strip an overzealous marketer or self-serving government bureaucrat of the use of euphemisms and what's left? Honesty, perhaps. That would be a refreshing change.

EditPros / writing, editing & employee training
Marti Childs Jeff March
423 F Street, Suite 206, Davis, CA 95616-4153
(530) 759-2000;  fax (530) 759-2051

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