Monday, July 16, 2012

Euphemisms and weasel words

I do love the way English columnists - the best of the breed, at any rate - can slip a verbal or written knife between the ribs and twist it viciously, all the while smiling sweetly into the eyes of their victim and whispering otherwise honeyed words into his ear.  Take this, for example.

Justifying his actions the other day, the captain of the Costa Concordia came up with a euphemism that is deserving of canonical status, by which I mean, it’s a belter. He said there had been “a breakdown in the interaction between human beings”.

In that phrase you can almost hear the scrape of metal against rock, smell the hot grease on the winches as the lifeboats are lowered. It ranks with Alan Clark’s admission during the Matrix Churchill trial that he had been “economical with the actualitĂ©”. And just as you had to admire Clark’s chutzpah, so you must doff the cap to Captain Schettino.

The great thing about this euphemism is that it can be applied to almost any disaster. When Theresa May came under attack from Yvette Cooper on Thursday for believing the security firm G4S when they claimed to know their fundament — another great euphemism — from their elbow, she said there had been “assurance processes”. That phrase certainly has potential as a euphemism, but “there has been a breakdown in the interaction between human beings” would have been much better.

Euphemisms are everywhere, once you tune in to them. In the newspaper world we have “biological seepage”, for the loss through natural causes of elderly subscribers. And how about this one, which I heard on Radio 4 on Friday. The climber killed in the French Alps was said by a friend of his to have demonstrated “cognitive dissonance”, a euphemism for putting the risks to the back of his mind before climbing.

Psychology is full of such euphemisms, of course, as it is not helpful to call someone nuts. The trouble is, they quickly become terms of abuse. Did you know that “retarded”, now banned, was introduced as a euphemism for “moron”?

There's more at the link.

Hang on, I just want to scratch this sudden itch in my ribcage . . .


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