Why We Can’t Live Without Euphemisms

Oct 24, 2017

As many Hollywood and Broadway actors have told us since the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story, sexual harassment in the entertainment business is nothing new. It’s business as usual in all businesses: behavior we turn we our backs on and pretend doesn’t exist. In the case of show business, looking the other way was easy, not only because the victims were powerless and stood to lose their careers if they came out with the truth, but because the crime itself was attached to an alliterative and amusing phrase, “the casting couch.”

A recent article in the Atlantic Magazine tells us that this quaint-sounding show biz cliché has been around for almost a hundred years. In fact, the image of a predatory producer propositioning a starlet has become such a staple of early porn films and Hollywood novels and theatrical movies that the phrase itself has become normalized and distanced in our minds from the criminal activity that it is.

We do that a lot with language. We use words to hide the truth. In the classic novel Nineteen Eighty Four George Orwell created an entire language called Newspeak, a restricted form of grammar and vocabulary designed to limit people’s freedom of thought and self-expression, indeed any ideas that threatened the government run by a ruler who called himself Big Brother…which is itself a phrase that characterizes a ruthless dictator as an affectionate and protective family elder.

The language of Newspeak worked by reducing complex thoughts into simplistic terms. Ambiguity, specifics, and shades of meaning were stripped from the language in order to reduce the ability of people to think.

So, to take an example from the headlines, the phrase “powerful man forcing a young person to have sex in order to get an acting a job” is reduced to the term “casting couch” which kind of sounds like something you’d buy at Bernie & Phyl’s.

Euphemisms are defined as “vague or indirect expressions used as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable ideas.” The website Thought Company says we use them for various reasons. One is for smoothing the rough edges around carnal functions. Think of the alternatives to a conversation in the office when you need to excuse yourself to ‘use the bathroom’ or have noticed that two colleagues may have ‘become intimate.’ Euphemisms can be used as verbal tranquilizers soften difficult concepts such as racism and death in the terms ‘the N word’ and ‘resting in peace.’

What really gets me are phrases that allow us to shield ourselves from reality. When you hear the word ‘prison’ you’re likely to think of an overcrowded hellhole in which sixty percent of the inmates are people of color…unless of course they’re called ‘correctional facilities’ which makes it a lot easier for jurors to find people guilty.

Hearing the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ on the evening news allows us to continue eating dinner instead of being disturbed by the thought of masses of men, women, and children being herded together in a village, machine gunned, and buried in a ditch. The same of course with the term ‘concentration camp’ which doesn’t sound at all like a place where people are detained without trial, starved and worked to death.

Terms which create distortion and confusion in our minds also help absolve people of responsibility. How do we blame a surgeon for screwing up in the operating room when we’re told our deceased loved one regrettably suffered ‘a negative patient outcome?’ How do we condemn the CIA for torture when they merely carried out ‘enhanced interrogation techniques? And for that matter, those weren’t neo-Nazi fascists who caused a riot in Charlottesville. They were simply members of the alt-right.

But hey, life is hard enough without having to hear the truth, so we all hide behind words. I wouldn’t tell my mother she’s as deaf as a post, I’d say she’s hearing impaired. And my dad wasn’t cruelly fired from a job he’d had for twenty-five years…he was offered an early retirement opportunity.

And in that vein, don’t go and call me a crotchety old fart. I am, of course, but I much prefer, concerned senior citizen.

I’m Ira Wood…and that’s my opinion.