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The G-Rated Truth

Euphemisms put a happy face on the world’s brutishness.

When a player is laid out by a ferocious hit in a football game, announcers downplay it with a cheerful “He really got his bell rung.”

We had a Department of War from the eighteenth century until the late 1940s. Then it was renamed the Department of Defense, which sounds a little less macho. I didn’t realize until recently that “no-fly zone” is a euphemism. The phrase seems innocuous, almost serene. But then I heard the secretary of defense explain that “a no-fly zone begins with an attack … to destroy the air defenses.”

You see houses for sale that have “2½ baths.” As I understand it, “half bath” means toilet and sink—and no bath at all. “Bath” is short for “bathroom,” which is itself a euphemism, in that it only tells the nicer part of the story.

“Deferred maintenance” is a fancy phrase for neglect. “Non-safety maintenance has, for lack of a better word, been deferred,” said an official, explaining why the city hadn’t found a way to clean its trains or repair its stations’ escalators—I don’t even want to think about the lavatories.

(Lavatory comes from lavare, Latin for “to wash.” Even toilet formerly meant “dressing room.” Every word we have for this spot started as a euphemism.)

Where would politics be without euphemisms? They can be the difference between upsetting your supporters and lulling them to sleep. When Ronald Reagan was president he raised taxes several times. Since doing so was anathema to his party, Reagan came up with “revenue enhancements.” Similarly, when President Barack Obama risked dismaying his base with tax cuts, he called them “spending reductions in the tax code.”

Wall Street and its twisted financial wizards like to hide their skullduggery behind language like collateralized debt obligations, which Time magazine’s Joe Klein paraphrased as “repackaged crappy loans.” Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, about the 2008 financial crisis, disclosed that corporate honchos balked at saying “bailout,” preferring “very large purchase assistance package.”

As Americans struggle with their weight, they grow increasingly defensive about it. So a new term has picked up steam. Now, instead of admitting that little Billy is fat, we can sidestep hurt feelings and even sound kind of smart when we speak of Billy’s high BMI (body mass index).

This country’s diet is almost too revolting for words. A prepackaged sandwich in a convenience store came in two varieties: beef and “fun meat.” Fun meat?! I have a hunch that the ingredients in a fun-meat sandwich aren’t anyone’s idea of fun.

Tom Stern

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and Punctuation

by Jane Straus, Lester Kaufman, and Tom Stern

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