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Euphemisms: Lying to Us Gently
Let’s talk about euphemisms, those soothing words meant to assure us that something’s not as bad as we know it is. A euphemism is a lullaby, a
sedative, a velvet glove enfolding reality’s iron fist. In a way, the word euphemism is itself a euphemism—so much kinder and gentler
Euphemisms are employed for many reasons, some of them nobler than others. The ultimate euphemism is pass away. “He passed away”
sounds peaceful, effortless. “He’s dead” is a two-syllable gut punch.
Nonetheless, there are those who are temperamentally unsuited for hiding stark truths behind fluffy words. In the 1944 film This Happy Breed a
patriarch tells his family: “Mother died. She didn’t pass on, pass over, or pass out. She died.”
A euphemism can transform a narcissist into a temperamental perfectionist, a bigot into a traditionalist, or an unhinged demagogue into a passionate idealist.
It’s not surprising that we find some really clever euphemisms in politics, where double-talkers known as spin doctors speak of collateral damage and enhanced interrogation. It’s not an invasion, it’s an intervention or an incursion or
sometimes an uncontested arrival. Terrorists are freedom fighters—if they’re on our side. Our opponents lie; our allies may have misspoken.
Then there are those Wall Street peculators whose malfeasance still has the country reeling. The financial world likes to couch its mischief in opaque
phrases like subprime mortgage bonds and collateralized debt obligations. One of our favorite Wall Street euphemisms is overleveraged, a mealy-mouthed term for expanding too fast, borrowing too much, and defaulting on the debt.
Alcohol’s prominent and often problematic place in society has given rise to many colorful euphemisms: Bertie is lit up like Broadway. He
just got back from the old watering hole. He was talking to John Barleycorn. Now he’s got his wobbly boots on.
Here are a few more choice euphemisms, some common, others less so:
Are there still barbers?
Personnel surplus reduction
Means you’re fired.
“The process of taking brief segments of sound (from a song, movie, or elsewhere) and using that sound to form another sound or musical piece.”
That’s how UrbanDictionary.com defines sampling. We can define it in one word: stealing.
But the winner by a landslide …
Atlantic triangular trade
A few years ago the Texas State Board of Education voted to use this Machiavellian phrase in history textbooks to replace slave trade.
When it comes to euphemism-wielding prevaricators, the Texas State Board of Education is in a class by itself.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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Reading while sunbathing makes you well red.
When two egotists meet, it’s an I for an I.
Every calendar’s days are numbered.
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