The Power of Communication: A Reflection on Euphemism

Let’s face it, we all do it. At a fine restaurant we would much sooner politely inquire for directions to the “restroom,” then brashly ask: “Where’s the toilet?”

It is a natural human tendency to perform a degree of instant self-sanitization of our phraseology, in order to accommodate our current audience, or, to quote the immortal Mary Poppins, to add the proverbial “spoonful of sugar” to help the medicine go down.

The manipulation of verbiage has indeed proven successful over time in tickling the ears and helping the receiver digest a difficult message, without the nasty after-effects of disagreeable-message-indigestion. Yet, many do not realize that there is a real danger that lurks behind “the spin.”

Euphemism is commonly understood as “the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt.” When done well, it typically involves a delicate intertwining of metaphor, understatement and abstract phraseology.

If you pick up today’s newspaper, you are bound to find many familiar examples of euphemism on the front page. You might see phrases such as:

Euphemism                                                   Used for

Downsizing                                                       Firing Employees
Ethnic Cleansing                                             Genocide
Gentlemen’s Club                                            Strip Club
Pre-owned Vehicle                                          Used Car
Family Planning                                              Contraception
Between Jobs                                                   Unemployed
Adult Material                                                  Pornography
Late-Term Abortion                                        Murder of Unborn Babies

The use of euphemism can be motivated by kindness and emotion to make something uncomfortable like “death” more palpable as we conjure images of a loved one gently “passing away” or “falling asleep.” At the same time, there is great danger in the abuse of euphemism.

The misuse of euphemism actually destroys language by diminishing its precise meaning and unjustly sanitizing the reality of its significance.

In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell criticizes the language of his day as “ugly and inaccurate.” He purports that mid 20th century prose was being used so carelessly that it had lost its genuine meaning and had instead become ambiguous and hollow.

Although there are some who may find it financially or politically beneficial to euphemize their language, Orwell warns that the phenomenon hardly stops with these. The “contagion,” as he calls it, has spread to the general public so that those who have no intention of hiding something heinous such as “genocide,” still speak only of “ethnic cleansing.” Clearly, the term “ethnic cleansing” does not bring to mind the graphic images of the horrors that go along with mass murder, yet euphemism’s mainstream infiltration has made it so prevalent that even those with no conscious intention to conceal the truth, do so.

In a political context, stripping language of its imagery has long been used as a tool for seizing and maintaining control of the masses. Hitler’s casual turning of the phrase “the final solution” as the glossy veneer of the Nazi Holocaust is only one example among countless others. This type of obfuscated political language, Orwell contends, is specially designed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

The result: language of today is a paradox. No longer is it being used for its created purpose of expressing the truth, but instead to mask it.

Although the scope of language allows for the construction of false statements, it was certainly not developed for that purpose. As young children we are taught to never tell a lie. We have basic rights and responsibilities that accompany the use of language. For example, if you ask someone for the time, you expect to get a truthful answer. If you are asked the same question, you are also expected to respond with veracity.

The abuse of euphemism violates our inherent duty to speak the truth, as well as the right of others to receive it. It actually inclines people toward intellectual dishonesty, as authentic expression becomes fuzzy, at best. Instead, it carefully conditions us all to glaze sweetly over the truth, making it easier to turn a blind eye or to remain ignorant of horrific human realities. For example, instead of hearing reports of the number of deaths of innocent civilians, we hear only of the war’s inevitable “collateral damage.”

A recent instance of euphemism-gone-wrong that gained much attention recently was an article in which The New York Times reported that the abortionist Kermit Gosnell was convicted for murdering born “fetuses,” instead of using the proper medical term “baby.”

So the question is begged, why did The New York Times not use the proper medical terminology?

It seems that there are two plausible reasons: 1) The writer’s ignorance of proper scientific terminology or 2) The writer’s particular political leanings.

If the misuse was out of the writer’s ignorance of appropriate medical jargon, then it speaks for a lack of professionalism and journalistic ethics. If it was done due to the writer’s personal politics, then it speaks for a lack of professionalism and journalistic ethics.

Our shared humanity causes every one of us to cringe when we read about living babies’ spinal cords being cut, their heads severed and their little feet kept in Dr. Gosnell’s office in jars. Yet, if you tack a benign label on the victims, such as “fetus,” suddenly we are no longer quite as horrified, as the images of a sadistic doctor enacting torture on little innocent people, fade away. Instead, the sanitized euphemism attempts to create a safe emotional and sensory distance for the reader that keeps him or her safe from the ugly reality.

Language has power. Many of us do not stop to consider the power we wield through the daily use of our tongues and pens. As humans working toward the betterment and good of society, it is our duty to consciously reject vague euphemistic language that has been prescribed over the years by politics and media. It is our responsibility to allow the light of truth to shine in our words.

Prudentially speaking, this does not mean throwing caution to the wind and attempting to abrasively force the truth down the throat of everyone you meet. To the contrary, I think the best and most enduring examples of speaking truth to power effectively, come to us from great literature. One of the very things that make great books timeless is the ability to express eternal truths with language elevated to its highest form.

Great writers from Cicero to Augustine and Aristotle to Aquinas, to those who possessed mastery over the English language like G.K.  Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Russell Kirk, Evelyn Waugh, Chaucer or Shakespeare, demonstrated that with the power of the pen the combination of truth, goodness and beauty has the ability to sweep us right off our unsuspecting feet. Undiluted truth draped in beauty resonates profoundly in the human soul. This approach is a far cry from diluting truth with ambiguous meaning, then wrapping it in a profanely ornate bow.

As we chose our language in every moment of our lives — whether in public or private conversation — it should be done consciously, carefully and cautiously. We must always consider the great responsibility that is tied to its use.

Most importantly, it should always be directed to the true, the good, and the beautiful. Since we know that the truth always finds its way to the light, the sure prescription for winning any war of words is to toss away careless euphemism and arm oneself with the greatest weapon of all: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Ashley Noronha, S.T.L., Ph.D. cand., is an American living in Rome, teaching Media Training for Priests for various orders, seminaries and organizations all over the world. She is the Rome Correspondent for the Relevant Radio Network and works at the Pontifical Council of Social Communications. She is a Professor of Communications & Leadership.  She has served as the Coordinator of the 2012 Covering Religion in Rome journalism seminar and the 2012 Church Up Close conference, for journalists who cover religion. Ashley and her husband John are experienced tour guides of the Vatican and city of Rome. They can be seen on EWTN, hosting episodes of Vatican Report's, Art & Faith in Rome.
Articles by Ashley:

  • pescher

    An extremely well-written article defining euphemisms and the author’s urging that we all must use the “weapon of truth” at all times cannot be stressed enough. It also reinforces what M. Adler noted when he wrote “The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until is has gained a hearing.” Since we all possess intellect-it’s not just limited to the intelligentsia-then her urging must a have a restless, universal appeal.

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