MAD DOG: Life in the Parsing Lane

Downplaying can be a wonderful thing. It stems from the desire to lessen the impact of those things which, as humans, we find difficult to understand and accept, such as death, taxes, and the filming of The Simple Life 2. It can be an important aid to help us cope with life. Of course this concept is foreign to those who love to make things appear bigger than they are -- think drama queens, hypochondriacs, and people who optimistically answer e-mail spam -- but they're in the minority. It just doesn't seem that way because they're so loud.

We learn the art of downplaying at an early age. When our mother asks if we have a lot of homework to do we tell her just a little. It's better than saying, "Well, there is that 12-page research paper which is due tomorrow morning that I haven't started but I have all of home room to get it done so how about I pretend to do a little work after David Letterman?" Contrary to what they like to say, mothers don't really want the truth, they much prefer downplaying. "We played Spin The Bottle" is preferable to "They know me by my first name at Planned Parenthood." "I tried it once but didn't like it" beats out "Why, do you want to buy some of the killer weed I have?" And "Only a few close friends know you're going away this weekend" trumps "Those party flyers and posters all over town look phat, don't they?"

One of the most important items in a downplayer's arsenal is the euphemism. Unlike the precision, clarity, and exacting meaning a word or phrase normally imparts, a well-constructed euphemism manages to say, well, nothing. It's noncommittal, vague, and empty, much like a Hugh Grant movie. That's why a bodice that rips when you yank it becomes a "wardrobe malfunction," rampant looting and anarchy in Iraq is labeled "untidy," and "collateral damage" is preferred over "Whoops! What were they doing there?" Obviously ball isn't the only word that can have spin.

The other day there were violent clashes between rival militia groups in Afghanistan in which 16 people died, including the country's Aviation Minister. The country's president called it "a small accident." If that's true then I don't want to be around when something big happens on purpose.

NASA is famous for its understatements, and I'm not talking about their project budgets. When the Apollo 13 flight was in dire trouble, Jim Lovell gave Tom Hanks one of his best movie lines by saying, "Houston, we have a problem." To this day he wishes he'd come up with the box of chocolates line but face it, he was an astronaut not a screenwriter. This might have been an example of grace under fire or keeping one's cool, though personally I think it's more like being decapitated and saying you have a boo-boo. If kissing it won't make it better, trust me, you have a problem on your hands.

So it was no surprise a while back that when Spirit, the first of the two Mars orbiters sent up last year, decided to go MIA after 20 days of fun and games on the planet's surface, the mission's project director calmly announced that "We have a very serious anomaly.'' I'm not sure what NASA classifies as serious, not-so-serious, and "Don't worry your pretty head about it," but personally I think not hearing a peep from a $400 million spacecraft is more than an anomaly, it's a potential disaster. Or at least a huge waste of money. But I guess it's all relative. I get upset when I can't find the $20 bill I knew I had in my jacket pocket, but that's just me.

As far as I can tell, a serious anomaly is lower on the trouble scale than a problem. "Little glitch" is even lower still. If they ever announce that they have a "sticky wicket" it's either a sign that they're playing croquet on the space station, Tony Blair has been tossed out of office and given the job as NASA spokesperson, or there are only two minutes of oxygen left on the space shuttle. I'd suspect the latter.

Another understating euphemism we've been hearing a lot lately is "person of interest," and I'm not talking about that man or woman who was making eyes at you the other night. No, this is what we used to call a suspect, though that was back before we entered the Parsing Decade. Now someone who's being intensely investigated is a person of interest, though of course that may depend on what is, is. There's a case in the courts right now in which Dr. Steve Hatfill is suing the government for ruining his life by calling him a person of interest in the 2001 anthrax mailing episode. Witnesses have testified that Attorney General John Ashcroft used that label for Hatfill to help him so people would know he wasn't a suspect. I guess not mentioning his name at all would have been too much trouble.

Euphemisms aren't all bad. After all, overweight sounds better than fat, passed away is gentler than died, and weapons of mass destruction sounds so much better than "trumped up excuse to invade Iraq." But that doesn't mean we should use them just to soft-pedal the truth. Well, unless we're talking about The Mullets, in which case the phrase "going on hiatus" would work just fine.

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