How we obfuscate with language
Speaking in euphemisms is a form of linguistic whitewashing.
Governments prefer to speak of ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ rather
than torture. The company spokesman will not say that staff are being
dismissed, but that the company is ‘restructuring’. Products are ‘a
bargain’, not cheap. If we tell a lie we are simply ‘stretching the truth’.
And when we are broke, we can give it the fancy expression ‘negative cash
flow’. The opposite of a euphemism – when you give something a negative
meaning – is called a dysphemism: someone with strong political views
will immediately become an ‘extremist’.
Euphemisms are the stealth bombers of rhetoric. At first glance they are
not visible, but their attacks are insidious: by the time you become aware
of them, the damage is already done. The Nazis loved euphemisms: ‘land
consolidation’ instead of expulsion, ‘labour camp’ instead of
concentration camp, ‘special action’ instead of killing.
Euphemisms crop up in almost all political and corporate
communications; for example, a town hall meeting might suggest a
friendly local gathering where everyone can contribute, but in fact the
CEO just wants to get a particular message across. Downsizing suggests a
sort of inevitability to making a company somewhat cosier in size without
mentioning job cuts.
Euphemisms are the mother tongue of manipulation. As a rule of thumb, if
someone doesn’t use straight language, don’t act straight away – pause