News & Politics

Euphemistically Speaking

During times of war, keeping track of the administration's euphemisms is a big part of understanding the political reality.
The word for this week is euphemism. Eu- is a Greek term for ''well'' or ''sounding good,'' and pheme translates: ''speech.'' Good-sounding speech.

But if you think about when both ordinary and official euphemisms are used (by all of us), it's easy to see how they function. We use euphemisms to conceal our anxieties, fears or shame; to clothe the naked, God's-honest-truth about death, sex, religion, politics, business and, of course, intimate bodily functions. "I'm going to use the john/bathroom," for example. Instead of saying…well, you know.

Looking at it from a linguistic angle, euphemisms are actually little windows into our minds and hearts; peep holes into our culture. They are neither inherently good or bad. But, depending on who is euphemizing -- and/or what is being euphemized -- they can be either delicate and delightful or dangerous and deceiving.

On the delicate-and-delightful side, you've got euphemisms like sanitation engineer for trash man; associate or representative instead of employee, or politician in the place of bs artist (okay, the last one I just made up). These kind of euphemisms are relatively harmless and, in some cases, an expression of politeness.

When it comes to the dangerous-and-deceiving end of the spectrum -- and all manner of euphemisms in between -- the free-minded would do well to have a euphemism dictionary in their mental toolbox. I recommend Hugh Rawson's Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk.

Euphemisms get into dangerous-and-deceiving territory when they are used consciously, especially when used consciously by institutions. Rawson reminds us that while conscious euphemisms can make communication easier under difficult circumstances, they can ''also lead to double-thinking."

''They form a kind of code. The euphemism stands for something else, and everyone pretends that the 'something else' doesn't exist,'' he writes. ''As commendable as some of these goals may be it is this characteristic of euphemisms -- their ability to soften the world's hard edges -- that also makes them attractive to people and institutions who have something to hide, who don't want to say what they are thinking, and who wish to lie about what they are doing.''

In other words, when euphemisms are used not so much to avoid offense as to throw up a smoke-screen, then we've crossed into the realm of dishonest euphemisms, Rawson observes.

During peacetime the study of euphemisms can be a rewarding intellectual exercise. During times of war, when truth is the first casualty, keeping track of euphemisms is an indispensable part of understanding the current political reality.

I keep Rawson's book by my side for Bush administration press conferences. Air support? What's that? ''The official military term for what everyone else calls bombing.'' Col. David H. E. Opfer made that clear to news reporters at a press conference discussing the Vietnam War in 1973. ''You always write it's bombing, bombing, bombing. It's not bombing. It's air support,'' he told the press pool, who perennially just don't get it.

Listening to pundits and ''experts'' talk about Iran's nuclear build-up, you'd think that mere possession of nuclear (and/or bio-chemical) weapons is evidence of maniacal evil -- until you remember that our peace-loving country has the largest stockpiles of WMD on earth and we're the only country to have dropped a nuclear bomb on civilians. With our continued expansion and development of nuclear weaponry (i.e. ''bunker busters''), the chances grow each day that we'll have another ''broken arrow." A broken arrow, according to Rawson's dictionary, is ''a serious accident involving a nuclear weapon.''

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a war apologist use the words freedom and democracy, I could single-handedly avert the social security ''crisis'' and pay a handsome pension to retiring baby-boomers. If you think this is just expectorating in the wind, then you have a range-forward contract to stop reading. Or you may just be suffering from extended nutritional deprivation, as Reagan's 1984 Food Task Force defined hunger.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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