– if you look at the fact that we now have more people, that’s men and women, in work than ever before – that’s a signal that the companies themselves are really more optimistic – they would effectively be de-stocking … their human capital … it’s what they’re not doing – they’re actually hiring people …
– that’s a horrible phrase – you mean sacking people don’t you.
World at One, Radio 4 (Thursday 7 March 2013)
Euphemism can be society’s way of dealing with emotionally difficult or taboo subjects. We do not die, we ‘pass away’; drug addicts have a ‘chemical dependency’; pornography is re-branded as ‘adult entertainment’; contraception is discussed at ‘family planning’ clinics. Equally, euphemism can soften critical judgements: people have ‘ample proportions’ (fat) or are ‘vertically challenged’ (short). This kind of linguistic substitution is based on concealment, but its aim is not purposefully deceptive – it just makes unpalatable or potentially embarrassing concepts more acceptable.
The problem comes when politics and big business manipulate language for their own gains. When sacking becomes ‘down-sizing’ – or as in this example, de-stocking … human capital – then the linguistic substitutions should set the alarm bells ringing. The replacement of a commonly understood word with something so detached and apparently neutral is intentionally deceptive. It aims to dehumanise the process by reducing people to the level of ‘product’: they have no value as individuals, only as potential capital. Making people redundant therefore becomes less personal – and easier to carry out.
In a military/political context, this deception seems more unscrupulous since it allows those in power to manipulate our response. Important documents have sections ‘redacted’ rather than censored; civilian deaths in military conflict are ‘collateral damage’; a ‘surgical strike’ is a precision bombing; enemies are ‘neutralised’ rather than killed. The language is technical; the connotations are neutral. The effect is to distance us from the true horror of war. This kind of euphemism is often called ‘Doublespeak’ – language that deliberately distorts meaning in order to mislead.
The frightening thing about the use of euphemisms is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties. Behind the façade of a history falsified by language, the painful particulars of war are lost.
For an interesting glossary of recent euphemistic military terms, follow the link below;
The comments linked to the post on 28 February 2013, ‘Interim – the power of a word‘ are also thought-provoking.