William and Mary Morris, Euphemism
The following text by two American linguists deals with speech techniques for telling the whole truth, the truth, a certain amount of truth, or for watering the truth down so much that it can no longer be recognized as the truth. Do not, however, confuse euphemisms* with lying!
According to the dictionaries, euphemisms are words substituted for more plainly explicit words which might prove offensive to some readers or listeners. Euphemism, which we borrowed directly from a Greek word meaning "to speak with good words," has spawned such related words as euphemize, euphemist, and euphemistic and, for many centuries, the simple dictionary definitions seemed adequate. However, during the period since the days of the New Deal in the U.S., the tendency on the part of political figures to resort to euphemisms - always a part of their makeup - has been extended to nearly ludicrous extremes. Similar use and abuse of euphemisms have become characteristic of much advertising and promotion language. And, particularly in the 1960s and the 1970s, the U.S. government indulged in such extended use of euphemisms in its reports to press and public that some scholars have redefined euphemism as the "language of deceit."
In the field of government, attention first became focused on the overuse of euphemisms when Maury Maverick, then in charge of a World War II agency, lashed out at what he called "gobbledegook language" and said that anyone using words like "activation" and "implementation" in place of their simple equivalents "will be shot." His warning, it need not be said, was not heeded and a decade or two later matters in Washington, linguistically speaking, were incomparably worse. The list of such abuses of the mother tongue could, quite literally, be endless. Here are a few chosen at random from a twenty-year collection.
A sewer commission is now a pollution-control agency. An employee is not "fired"; he is "selected out" or "riffed," an acronym from "reduced in force." A "janitor," of course, has long since been raised to the status of "superintendent," just as the old-fashioned "plumber" is now a "sanitation engineer." A "trash barrel" is now an "ecological receptacle," while at least one enterprising trash collector has restyled himself "garbologist" and adopted the slogan: "Satisfaction guaranteed or your garbage refunded." A second-hand car is never called that today. It's "reconditioned," "rebuilt," or, simply, "previously owned." . . .
Certainly the advertising fraternity has led the way in promoting euphemistic labels for many of its products. Nothing is ever "large" or "cheap;" it's "king-sized" or "economy-priced." One doesn't have a "smell" but an "aroma" or "scent." Fat boys are not fitted with fat-boy suits but with "chubby" sizes and their fathers are never fat but "portly." Similarly the mother is directed to dresses for "mature" (not fat) women....
But, before leaving this generally depressing topic of calculated abuse of the language, we should like to share with you two less than melancholy fruits of our researches. The first is a confession from a poor young woman. "I used to think I was poor," she wrote. "Then they told me I wasn't poor; I was needy. Then they said it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, that I was culturally deprived. Then they told me deprived was a bad image, that I was underprivileged. Then they told me that underprivileged was overused, that I was disadvantaged. I still don't have a dime - but I have a great vocabulary!"
And the second item is reported here to prove that at least one public servant, Harry S. Truman, subscribed to the preachings of the Honorable Maury Maverick. At a meeting of her garden club, Mrs. Truman was approached by a fellow member who asked her if she couldn't use her influence with Mr. Truman to persuade him to stop talking so much about "manure." "Heavens no," replied Mrs. Truman. "You have no idea how long I had to work on him to get him to say 'manure'!"
spawn sth.: etwas ausbrüten
New Deal: program lof sociaö anmd economic reform of democratic U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) during the Great depression of the 1930s
ludicrous ['---]: silly, absurd
promotion: act of making a new product known
indulge in sth. : in etwas schwelgen
scholar [ Gelehrter
deceit : act of misleading sb.
lash out at sth.: attack sth. verbally
gobbledegook language : Kauderwelsch; Fachchinesisch
heed sth.: pay attention to sth.
at random: not according to any system
sewer : Kanalisation
acronym: word formed from the first letters of a series of words it stands for
refund sth.: give sth. back
fraternity: (here) exclusive circle
deprived: kept from having sth. one has a right to
Harry S. Truman (1884-1972): Democratic President (1945-1953)
manure : Mist
Understanding the contents
1. Define briefly and in your own words what a euphemism is.
2. What change in the meaning of the word "euphemism" do the Morrises point out?
3. In which fields are euphemisms mainly used, according to the writers?
4. Explain the difference between the cases of the woman mentioned and Mrs. Truman.
Analysing the text
5. The text is taken from a reference book, the "Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage". Explain why the text is different from the standard dictionary entry. Consider the tone* and style*.
6. Identify examples of exaggeration* and aspects of emotive* language in the text.
7. What intentions did the writers clearly have in mind when writing this text? Explain.
Working with the language
8. Examine the following examples of euphemisms from the text: "pollution-control agency" , "selected out", "sanitation engineer", "ecolopgical receptacle" , "king-sized", "economy-priced" , "mature". "underprivileged" . Why, exactly, do these words and phrases sound less offensive or more attractive than the words they are meant to replace?
9. Find German euphemisms for the following English ones: "king-size(d)", "economy-priced" , "scent", "chubby", "portly" , "underprivileged" .
Going beyond the text
10. Not only individual words, but also complete statements can be euphemistic. Restate the following sentences in a more direct way:
a) "The Minister is giving the matter his consideration."
b) "The city's crime rate is no higher than in comparable cities."
c) "The Administration claims responsibility for slowing the rise of inflation."
d) "I'm not so certain that one should view the matter in that light."
e) "I can see you've put a great deal of effort into choosing this gift."
11. Discuss the function of euphemisms in communication on a personal level
12. Imagine a hotel situated near a busy airport and next to a motorway junction. The hotel
has no room-service, and the menu in the hotel restaurant contains only ten different
items. There are no TVs, radios or telephones in the rooms. Work in groups of three or
four and write a euphemistic advertisement for that hotel.