Euphemism: A Euphemism is a misguiding word or phrase used in place of another that the speaker fears will give offense. That’s my definition of a class of speaking that should really be expunged from the language. Everything from calling the rioters in Stockholm this last week youths, to calling a fat person overweight introduces deceit into everyday language; and like yeast, once lies, however innocuous, infect a person’s habits they become every day more a liar and less honest. In the first case, there are some people already making the arguments that society must give up cultural euphemisms and call evil what it is: people like Mark Steyn and this guy in the Boston Herald:
It shouldn’t have to be pointed out that entire groups are not responsible for barbarians in their midst, but it also should not be uncomfortable to call those barbarians by their names, whether it’s in response to placing bombs at the feet of unsuspecting innocents, or the beheading of a young British soldier in broad daylight on a London street.
I do think, though, that the second case of euphemisms is destructive as well. We have become accustomed to speaking around the truth; obfuscation is the habit and clarity the exception. How can you expect a society to speak the truth about the big important things when they cannot even be relied upon to tell the truth about little things? The habits made in the small everyday things are what dictate the response of a person to a sudden ‘big’ thing. What people say about, for instance, the Boston Bomber, is very much influenced by what they say about the badly behaved children at school, or their overweight friend, or the bad novel their friend made them read. (Note to those of my friends whose novels I have read, they aren’t bad enough to fall into this category.) If someone is willing to tell their friend that their novel is poorly executed, or poorly conceived, they are much more likely to be able to recognize that the Boston bombers were terrorists slaughtering innocent people in the name of Islam.
For example, there is an author community site that I went to once because one of the authors of the ACM novel contest was using it and referenced the feedback received there. People would post chapters and such (sometimes whole novels) and the other authors would comment. No matter how badly written, inane, sloppy, or driveling the section was, no one said anything critical. Everyone either was pretending to like it, or they were so practiced at lying through euphemism that they could not tell the truth. Everyone said ‘well done’ when in fact it would be more helpful, more caring, and more kind (and truthful) to say ‘That is terribly done; you should probably either practice a lot more, or find something else that you are good at.’
I know that many people will disagree and cry out about tact. To be truthful (which is what this is all about, so I should practice it myself here.) I certainly have some issues in the area of tact. My mother always taught me that if I didn’t have something nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. And, as it turns out, I was silent… a lot. Nowadays, my wife will sometimes ask what I think about something, and I will tell her that we should wait until we get home before I tell her. So my version of tact is usually silence.
So, I will concede that, perhaps, euphemisms were invented for tact: so that you could talk about things tactfully with people. However, like everything human, euphemisms have gone rotten. They have infected every part of our speech, like clichés (discussed briefly here: The War of the Cliche) and in every case the nice way of saying something is now a lie. And nowhere do I see it written that it is ok to lie as long as you are making other people feel better about themselves.
I think everyone should do this one little experiment to see just how far their thoughts and speech have been infected by euphemisms. Spend one day without them. Every time you are about to use a euphemism, stop, and say the truth, and think about the difference between the two, think about whether this euphemism was just a nice way to say something or if it was really deceit and a lie. This will not be a pretty thing, the truth is not pretty, because humans are evil, the truth is frequently ugly (Even the word abortion with all its emotional baggage is a euphemism, the reality is babies dismembered alive: tortured to death.) But I do think it is worth the exercise. If anyone decides to give it a try, let us know in the comments. I think it would be an interesting follow-up conversation about which euphemisms people thought were harmless and which are disguised lies. (Also, I cannot do it, simply using euphemisms is difficult for me, so I am a terrible data point… 🙂 )