Sunday, March 25, 2012

The 10 Worst Euphemisms

In itself there is nothing wrong with a perfectly good euphemism. As a matter of fact, when properly used, not only is it acceptable, but it can be down right commendable; "I really need to powder my nose", or, "That kid better watch out lest he fall on his patookus". There is no deception here- only the solemn recognition that some things aught to be talked about with a certain level of modesty. Nevertheless, there is also a diabolical form of euphemism, the kind which seeks to use pleasant language in order to cover up a not so pleasant reality. Below I have presented what I believe to be some of the most pernicious of these euphemisms, though I dare not underestimate the power of those soon to be invented. 

10. Issues

Inarguably, one of the least pernicious of the aforementioned euphemisms, this popular way of downplaying the problems (yes, it's OK to use the term) that some individual may encounter, has practically become ubiquitous. Somehow the fact that we have "issues" as opposed to "problems" is supposed to make everyone feel better. Johnny has "anger issues". Well, Johnny may for all we know have done something as typical as to pull Sally's pigtails. On the other hand, he may have flown into a rage and burned her house down. But why should we go around splitting hairs, right? The main thing we should focus on is preventing the child from recognizing that there is a distinct difference between the two actions (sarcasm intended).

9. Special Needs

I have no problem with using language that avoids (unnecessarily) stigmatizing children that possess psychological, emotional, or even developmental problems. But the term we use should in some way be evocative of the circumstances. The expression "special needs" leaves me completely in the dark as to the gravity of the situation. I understand that many individuals want to make the problem as innocuous sounding as possible, but should we make it so innocuous that no one has any idea what you are in fact talking about? For all we know the child may have a mild learning disability, or he may have Down Syndrome. Whatever the case, failure to call something by its name may in one sense soften the blow, but may in another simply exacerbate it. 

8. Inappropriate

I first started becoming aware of this euphemism in the late 1990s, when President Bill Clinton became embroiled in the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal. If you recall at the time the incident was described in the most gentle terms possible; "I/He had an inappropriate relationship with that woman, Miss Lewinsky". Since then it has made its way into the mainstream as a catchall for anything untoward that happens ("untoward" is also a euphemism, but I suppose in order to explain one sometimes you have to use one). Thus its usage may include (according to its recent etymological implications) anything from a bad joke told at the office, to engaging indecent behavior in the oval office. It might in one instance involve a woman wearing questionable attire to a funeral, and in another a woman committing a heinous murder. I think the purpose of using it is not so much to say that murder and adultery are fine, but rather to avoid using any terminology that implies a higher morality. If you call something wicked or evil- or even wrong- then you are attaching a supernatural significance to it. Somewhere along the line we have collectively agreed that it is better to feminize (or perhaps effeminize) our vocabulary, than it is to have a higher level of accountability.

7. Deferred Success

A few years back I read a story about a new approach to education in English schools. In an apparent attempt to safeguard the remarkably fragile psyche of children, schools decided to avoid using the term "F" to describe, well, failure. Replacing such an unconscionable word is the phrase "deferred success". And this conclusion is understandable... if you believe that a child's self-esteem is the cornerstone of their personal happiness. Simply put, tell them pretty lies, and they will most certainly be better for it. Yet what is so treacherous about this "lie", is that it robs both the one who succeeds and the one who fails. The one who receives an "A" is told their hard work is ultimately indistinguishable from the one who fails, and the one who fails is told that he can't fail even if he wants to. And even if he doesn't want to fail, he is equally robbed of the healthy shock (and perhaps clarity) that often arises when one sees how far they have fallen from academic grace. In a related story, a school board in the United States banned the use of red pens by teachers because apparently the mere sight of those blood red pens caused too many students to convulse with sorrow.

6. The Solace Room                   
My mother has served as a hospice volunteer for any number of years. Recently she told me a story that I think is quite indicative of where hospice is going. In the past decade or so, this important ministry has become increasingly secularized. Apart from its predictable penchant for introducing "New Age" ideas into its philosophy, it has gone even further, and determined that it is better to avoid any religious terminology rather than potentially exclude someone. Thus, instead of calling the room formerly known as a chapel a "chapel," they have chosen instead to call it the "solace room". What sort of solace inducing objects are in this room? I cannot say, but what I can assure you of is what is not in that room; namely the Bible. The question one might ask is what sort of solace can one find if you don't have anything like the Resurrection to hope in? The goal is to make everyone feel included, but all it ultimately serves to do is to allow everyone to feel mutually excluded from any real kind of comfort.

5. Friendly Fire, Ethnic Cleansing, and Mercy Killing

By placing these three together I am not necessarily suggesting an equivalence, but there is a similarity in that they all serve to down play the killing of another human being. Another thing they all have in common is that each one employs something virtuous alongside something that is not. For example, "friendly fire" refers to the accidental shooting of a military officer by another military officer on the same side. It would be too easy to point out that a bullet flying at someone could hardly be described, whatever the circumstances, as a "friendly" exchange. The second one, which obviously involves something far more sinister- though is nevertheless no less pleasant sounding- is the expression "ethnic cleansing." Ironically, it was a term used by the the media in the 1990s to describe the dispute in Yugoslavia between the Croatians and the Serbians, though it finds its origins in World War II. During the war, it was used by both parties as a means to describe their own respective attempts to expel and/or kill the opposing party. Indeed, it is a term that Hitler would have been proud of, for how could anyone oppose the idea of a little "spring cleaning"? And last of all, those great martyrs of assisted suicide, those bastions of mercy. Beware anyone who attributes virtue to their own personal actions. The humble man does not call himself a hero. However, this pillar of righteousness is ready to describe himself in the most glowing terms, even as he delivers the lethal injection (or whatever other form it takes) to his patient. Let us all pat ourselves on the back for saying, in essence, I love you so much I'm going to help kill you.

4. Planned Parenthood, Reproductive Health Services, Pro-Choice

Once again in this group each one contains something that is undeniably positive. In the first case, we have both a "plan" and a "parent", which are amiable enough ideas, until you realize that the name of this organization does precisely the opposite of what its title suggests. The primary function that Planned Parenthood serves is not to perform  mammograms, (they only provide referrals), but to provide abortions as well as contraception. And as we all know, none of those options facilitates parenthood; rather it facilitates its prevention. Perhaps the name "planned parentless" would be a better name. Secondly, reproductive health services are the very "services" that planned parenthood and some hospitals provide. Again, the name belies the actual function- for in this arena one is neither reproducing, nor are they receiving any treatments for a disease. Yes, in a small number of cases, birth control can be used for "health" reasons, but the primary function of these "services" is to;  a) fill a woman with artificial hormones (with numerous unhealthy side effects) and/or;  b) perform a violent operation on a woman wherein the fruit of her womb is dismembered. Even if you do not regard a fetus as a human being, it is difficult to argue that this procedure is "healthy" for a woman's body. And lastly, how could I omit that equally mind numbing phrase "pro-choice". I suppose it works like a placebo: if you tell yourself enough times that your position is something positive, then no matter how terrible it is, you might just convince yourself of the virtue in it. After all, who could deny the value of each individual being able to make their own decision on such matters, and what sort of tyrant would force a woman to allow their child to live? It's inhuman! Abortion is as American as apple pie. Incidentally, if a woman allowed her own child to get run over by a bus instead of attempting to save him/her, she would be called a heartless coward, but for some reason when she is driving her own bus it is all of sudden acceptable for her to throw her child under it.  

3. Selective Reduction

All of these euphemisms are an attempt to soften the blow of an unpleasant reality, but what is most interesting is just how many are related to the fate of the unborn. If none of these procedures are morally questionable, then why is the euphemist so afraid of calling a spade a spade? Why is he so sensitive to the point of using such measured vocabulary? Granted, there are some that have come out and said things like "I love abortion", but they are few and far between. In a sense, I am grateful for the honesty of the latter, because they are saying in essence, if we do not believe that a fetus is a "person", then why all this ambivalence over a glob of cells being destroyed? Call it beautiful, call it virtuous, call it love if you will! As it relates to this particular euphemism, there is not even a colorful attempt to make it sound positive. Rather, in this case, we have a more toned-down approach. In fact, when one hears these two words together, one is almost tempted to yawn, for how could such flavorless words have such significance? Who would have suspected that two such nondescript words could have such gruesome implications? Selective reduction is a term used to describe what happens when a woman is set to have multiple births, though chooses instead to "reduce" her litter, by aborting one or more of the fetuses. To me the phrase simply sounds like a dietary regimen, which, I would argue, is probably not far from what its author had in mind.

2. Blastocyst

This is technically not a euphemism because it is a biomedical term referring to a cluster of cells which compromises part of the cell mass in an embryo. The reason it appears on this list is due to the manner in which it was used in a Congressional hearing some years ago to justify embryonic stem cell research. In other words, they used a real scientific term, but in such a way that it was ultimately employed as a kind of comforting catch phrase. After all, who could argue with a little scientific research on a cluster of cells? What was missing was an honest description of how these cells are obtained. It would be like offering someone a blood transfusion, and failing to mention that you had to kill someone in order to obtain the blood. The truth is every time they perform this innocuous little procedure, they are in essence gutting a human embryo. What makes this term so effective is the fact that the word is so unpleasant. How could anyone feel any real compassion for something with the word cyst in its title?

1. Family Balancing

This is my top selection for worst euphemism because, frankly, it sounds like something too ridiculous to be true. The startling indifference to life and love that must accompany this so called "balancing" is remarkable even by eugenic standards. In recent years there has been something of an outcry leveled against India and China for their serial practice of aborting female children. For China in particular it is the result of their one child policy, but in either case this is done because it is more economically profitable to have a male child. In the West, we don't even have the poverty as an excuse, though we still find plenty of reasons to selectively abort. Of all the reasons for abortion this has to be the most callous. The sheer audacity of choosing to abort a child in order to properly "balance" the number of boys and girls in the household (most want one boy and one girl) is beyond words. Such a practice is something at once so decadent and heartless that it defies description. The only thing worse than the act itself is the efficient little title it is given. Indeed, it sounds more like a mother's practical approach to parenting or budgeting for the household, than an abortion procured, in essence, for cosmetic reasons.    

Honorable Mention: Just missing the list are two more mind numbing classics. The first is Gender Liberation, which is meant to imply, I suppose, that being a man or a woman (as opposed to androgynous) is a form of slavery. The second is the term Persistent Vegetative State, which suggests that if one is unfortunate enough to be in this state, they have all dignity of an eggplant.



  1. Poignantly witty. Well done and Thanks

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