Monday, December 17, 2012

“Euphemistically Speaking”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Euphemistically Speaking”
December 17, 2012

There is an impulse among all of us to find more pleasant ways of relaying unpleasant truths. It is most common in the case of death. We prefer to say one has “passed on,” rather than saying the person has died. “Passed on” leaves open the possibility that he or she may be on the other side of the wall. “Dead” implies gone forever. Blind people are “visually challenged.” Even the word “handicapped,” which was once a euphemism itself, is today considered offensive to the uncompromising ears of the “politically challenged” – itself a euphemistic term for the Left. Words don’t change. It is only people’s interpretation that does. For example “retarded” was once a euphemism for “slow,” but no self-respecting Upper Westside matron would today utter such a blasphemy. Handicapped has morphed into disabled. The word “idiot” is banned by all the right people, despite it serving as a title for one of Dostoyevsky’s masterpieces. An idiot can be seen as a euphemism for a member of Congress. And a morally challenged person is still immoral.

The unabridged Random House dictionary defines euphemism as the “substitution of a mild, indirect or vague expression for a word or expression thought to be offensive, harsh or blunt.” The first edition of Webster’s Dictionary defines the same word less euphemistically, as “a word or expression that substitutes for another, which may be offensive to delicate ears.” The use of “delicate ears” in such a sentence would likely be considered politically incorrect today. The Rehabilitation Act Amendment of 1992 replaced one and two syllable word-phrases; i.e. the term “deaf people” has become “people with hearing impairments.”

Political correctness – principally the province of the Left – accounts for many such words and phrases. Politicians claim to use them so as not to offend their myriad constituents, as though truth is the wrong medicine to provide those on whom they depend for office. Consider the fast approaching “fiscal cliff.” Should we go over it, it is widely claimed (in this instance truthfully) that taxes will rise for all. However, the Obama Administration, desirous of granting tax cuts, couches extending the Bush Tax rates for the 98% as a “tax cut,” when in fact it is not. Any tax system that has been in place for ten years and more is not considered temporary by taxpayers, no matter what the law may state. Reverting to the Clinton-era tax rates, for the “two Percent,” is deemed “fair,” though it would be a tax increase.

Even worse, as we all remember, was the refusal of the Obama White House to acknowledge terrorism. Terrorist attacks, like those on 9/11, were described by Janet Napolitano, newly installed Secretary of Homeland Security, as “man-caused disasters.” Instead of a War on Terror, our troops are engaging in “countering violent extremism.” The Administration wanted to distance itself from its predecessor; yet, they risked increasing danger, as people came to underestimate the will of the enemy. And why call Adam Lanza a “shooter,” when in fact he was a killer? A lot of people shoot. A small minority are crazed killers. On Saturday someone on CBS referred to him as a man with “retained anger” – psychologist-speak for insanity. If we weren’t afraid to refer to people such as Mr. Lanza as a lunatic, it might be easier to get such people off the streets.

This Christmas season provides one of our most obnoxious euphemisms – the Holiday Tree. It was in Boston, in 2005, when the word “Holiday tree” was first substituted for “Christmas tree.” Christmas is a Christian holiday, and it is one that most Americans celebrate, regardless of faith. They do so because of the inclusiveness of Christianity, especially at Christmas time, and because of the pervasiveness of the holiday in a commercial sense.. And the tree has become a non-denominational symbol of the joy of Christmas. Ben Stein once wrote, “Christmas is about something huge. You can be saved if you simply make a contract to believe in God and (some add) if you act right.. It has nothing to do with how you were born or into what tribe.” Christian symbols at Christmas times, such as crèches and crosses, are discouraged in our multi-cultural society, sucked out by the politically correct among us. These people have converted what was once the celebration of the birth of Jesus into a commercial holiday in which same-store sales comparisons have become of greater importance than the miracle of Jesus’ birth. The best thing about Christmas is that it manifests the generosity of the human spirit. It causes us to believe in ourselves, our friends and neighbors. There is no need to turn it into a political whipping post, euphemistically or otherwise.

In general, I have always favored good old Anglo Saxon words and terms, where there is no question as to a word’s meaning. However, if one can look beyond a few preposterous euphemisms, others can be fun: A fat person is “built for comfort, not speed;” “shooting blanks” for sterility; “making whoopee” for having sex, and “turning up one’s toes” for having died. Others, like “ethnic cleansing,” instead of racial genocide, hide the horrors of their true meaning.

Of course there are times when euphemisms are appropriate. Sir Galahad Threepwood, younger brother of Lord Emsworth and one of P.G. Wodehouse’s most likeable characters, has many names for attractive young females, generally fiancée’s of his younger friends. In A Pelican at Blandings, Gally (as Sir Galahad is widely known) is walking the grounds of Blandings Castle (his ancestral home) with his godson, John Halliday. While the plot is too complicated to easily summarize, just know that Halliday’s fiancée Linda Gilpin has broken their engagement. Gally refers to Ms. Gilpin as a “popsy.” “I wish you wouldn’t…,” interjects young Halliday. Gally interrupts: “I am a plain spoken man. I call a popsy a popsy.”

Is any of this important? Kenneth Jerrigan, blind from birth and the long time leader of the National Federation of the Blind, believed passionately in justice for the blind, and he thought it was. He believed in the importance and accuracy of words. In 1993, five years before his death, he wrote: “As civilizations decline, they become increasingly concerned with form over substance, particularly with respect to language.” “Shell-shock” became “combat fatigue” during World War II. It is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” with its own acronym – PTSD. The problem with an emphasis on form is that it detracts from the real problem. But it does provide work for another layer of bureaucrats, as manuals must be revised. And, as in the case of the nut in Newtown, CT demonstrated, it may make us less wary of those with mental problems.

I would urge people to use simpler, Anglo-Saxon words and terms. We shut doors; we do not close them. The area beneath our house is a cellar, not a basement. Why do builders insist on putting dens into homes? Dens are for wolves, or for an argot of thieves, euphemistically speaking.

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