Self-Deceiving Euphemisms

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an essay on “The Art of Deception” in which I pointed out the seeming paradox that not only do we seek to deceive others but we often engage in acts of self-deception when we find reality difficult to live with.

Most of our self-deception is built on an innate capacity not to accept facts that interfere with the way we prefer to see the world. But it occurs to me, that in support of our attempts at self-deception we often use language in a way that distorts the truth and softens the impact of the world on us and this also is a device of self-deception.

Let us look at some examples here to give you a flavour for this self-deceptive contrivance.

An employer downsizing his business often says something to the effect, “I had to let some people go this month.” Underlying this statement is the implication that the people really wanted to go and the employer has agreed to their desire for severance. But in effect the employees were sacked. They were dismissed against their will.

In a similar vein employers often talk about “right-sizing” their organisations. I am here to assure you that this euphemism has never, ever meant that more staff were hired, but that staff were discarded. It would have been more truthful (but more painful to some) to admit that what we are talking about here is “downsizing.”

I guess the one topic that the modern developed world avoids like the plague is death. Consequently very few of us are up front enough to say, “My friend John died this morning” implying such excruciating finality. More than likely we soften the message by saying John “passed away”. This gentle metaphor suggests that he might just have wandered inadvertently into a peaceful place where he is content but absent from us.

The euphemism flows through to our pets. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I got my dog killed today”? No you will hear people say instead, “I had to get my dog ‘put down’”.

These euphemisms are bad enough, but to my mind one of the most obscene is when we come across accounts of skirmishes in Afghanistan or wherever, and we hear there was “collateral damage”. We baulk at saying what was really meant – that innocent people were killed as a result of the conflict. It enables us to avoid imagining the horror of little children losing their lives, being maimed or suffering unimaginable psychological trauma.

We also seem to want to avoid the basic, necessary functions of the human body. As much as we would like to pretend otherwise all animals, humans included, must defecate and urinate. But in our overly sensitive desire to avoid owning up to these bodily needs the places where we go to carry out such functions are often called “washrooms” or “restrooms”. Surely we don’t go there to wash (except our hands of course when we are done) or rest. (I can’t remember going to a toilet and finding someone asleep!) Or you ring someone and their secretary answers and responds, “He is not available right now – he has just stepped out.” Probably he has just stepped in to a toilet cubicle!

In the same vein we find it difficult to talk about sexual activity. In referring to some of the salacious activities of newsworthy people we hear that someone “slept” with someone. If that is all they did the item would not be very newsworthy!

Similarly in trying to avoid the actuality of the role, garbage collectors have morphed into sanitation engineers, security guards become safety co-coordinators and the beloved lollipop ladies (who could resile from such a term) are traffic controllers.

I am not trying to imply I don’t have my own sensitivities here. I am as likely as the next man (or woman) to seize upon a euphemism or a metaphor that doesn’t confront me unduly. When I was young people were often labelled as “mentally retarded”, a term that makes me shudder. They are nowadays more often named as people with “special needs”. I suspect that is a cop-out as well but I have my vulnerabilities too! (As no doubt my frequent readers, both of you, would have noticed.)

In my youth people who suffered from cerebral palsy were called “spastics” and this came to be a derogatory epithet. We can certainly do without that sort of labelling.

I can’t help but believe that we would be better off if we were more honest about the human condition, with perhaps a little sensitivity. By and large euphemisms don’t help us. They don’t clarify but largely obfuscate. It is a great blessing and an aid to competently dealing with the world to see and acknowledge the world as it is.

And another thing……

There was a news item this week (and apparently a video circulated) of an unfortunate Afghan woman who was killed by the Taliban in front of a jeering mob of men having been accused of adultery. What an abhorrent act! But I was given pause to think and ruminate on this atrocity. Something came to me when an editorial I read called it an act of “medieval barbarism”.

The Middle Ages are generally defined as that time between the fifth and fifteenth centuries. In Europe that was a time of consolidation, when principalities and fiefdoms were gradually aggregated into nations. Normally this was achieved under the direction of despots.

When we look at the Muslim world today many countries (Afghanistan being a case in point) are at a similar stage of political development. Many of these countries are largely aggregations of tribes under the control of chieftains and warlords.

It took the Western world at least five hundred years to progress from such a state to liberal democracies. It seems to me that when Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded and “liberated” the notion that such countries might move from tribalism to democracy in such a short time bearing in mind the history of the development of our own democracies was delusionary. Similarly the euphoria that accompanied the “Arab Spring” seems to be misplaced if we believe that overthrowing the current despots will automatically lead to liberal democracies.

It is my fervent hope that democratic progress in such countries doesn’t take as long as it did in the West. But I suspect that many more will suffer from “medieval barbarism” before the situation is resolved.

5 Replies to “Self-Deceiving Euphemisms”

  1. We killed our dog today. Our four year old Maltese Terrier, Timmy had been suffereing from epletic fits which were becoming worse, so we took him to the RSPCA.

  2. Sorry to hear about the death of Timmy. I am sure it was an act of compassion whether you killed him or decided to “put him down”.Thank you for sharing that with us.

  3. Wow Blake, that’s pretty tough.

    Sometimes I wonder who we are protecting. Until recently I thought I was protecting the other person, but I am sure that it would not take much scrutiny to see that I am protecting myself from misplaced embarrassment, while demonstrating unfortunate patronism on the other.

  4. I’ll add a couple more words that have evolved as a result of our distaste or fear for what the word means.

    Jail became prison became correctional facility.
    Opportunity school became special school.
    Niggers became blacks became African Americans
    (Can that word even go legally to print still? I know my email filter would block it.)

    In the end it is the thing or concept that offends or frightens us and not the words, but it shows just how much we confuse the maps with the terrain. Our world is words and models that exist in our minds. When they are unpleasant enough we just change them and change them and change them, but it is futile. Our view of the world is just that a view. It is not reality.

  5. Thanks for the post Ted.
    For a while now I’ve been trying to determine the rules behind some particluar media spin.
    When are you slain, as opposed to fatally injured, killed or murdered?
    I suppose the underlying deception in all of this is that as part of daily life there are people not just deceiving themselves but actively doing same to us.

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