Tuesday, May 1, 2007


From Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day:

The Word of the Day for May 1 is:

euphemism \YOO-fuh-miz-um\ noun: the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also : the expression so substituted

Example sentence: Aunt Helen would never say that someone had "died"; she preferred to communicate the unpleasant news with euphemisms like "passed on."

Did you know? "Euphemism" derives from the Greek word "euphemos," which means "auspicious" or "sounding good." The first part of "euphemos" is the Greek prefix "eu-," meaning "well." The second part is "pheme," a Greek word for "speech" that is itself a derivative of the verb "phanai," meaning "to speak." Among the numerous linguistic cousins of "euphemism" on the "eu-" side of the family are "eulogy," "euphoria," and "euthanasia"; on the "phanai" side, its kin include "prophet" and "aphasia" ("loss of the power to understand words").
Merriam-Webster might have quoted George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" (1946):
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Orwell of course did not live to hear of extraordinary renditions and enhanced interrogation techniques.

Update, May 25, 2007: A reader of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish reports that
"enhanced interrogation techniques" is a fairly decent English translation of the Gestapo euphemism "verschaerfte Vernehmung," which was the code word for torture in the Third Reich.

comments: 3

raymond pert said...

At Lane Community College, where I teach English, we are suffering through a budget catastrophe. Two administrators have referred to classes as "learning opportunities", a euphemistic way of avoiding talking straight about what's being cut.

Michael Leddy said...

I'll be on the lookout for "learning opportunities" -- that's a new one to me. Thanks for reading and commenting, Raymond.

Anonymous said...

The error is to focuse on "torture"; while Geneva prohibits something not quite the same: "Abuse." It is possible to abuse someone without torturing them; thus, even tho the US maugh not meet the "definition of torture when abusing," they're still abusing prisoners in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Others are allowed to engage in reciprocal abuse, not just of military personnel, but similarly detained-without-trial personnel: US government officials, legal counsel, and others asserted -- withotu evidence, as the US has done -- that they have committed war crimes.

If the uS doesn't regulate it's fighters and prohibit all abuse, others may do the same to similarly detained US government employees.