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Hendrik van der Breggen
March 28, 2013
Euphemisms: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
APOLOGIA By Hendrik van der Breggen The Carillon,
March 28, 2013
Euphemisms: The Good,
the Bad, and the Ugly
The use of language is an art—and so is its abuse. Today I
will look at the use and abuse of euphemisms.
When certain words are considered too blunt, harsh, painful,
or offensive, people sometimes substitute a euphemism, that is, a more
acceptable term, a term with fewer negative connotations or with more positive
connotations, than the blunt, harsh, painful, or offensive term.
In her book The
Practical Study of Argument, philosopher Trudy Govier explains: “There is a
sense in which euphemism is the
opposite of emotionally charged language. With emotionally charged language,
terms are more emotional than appropriate. Euphemism, on the other hand,
involves a kind of whitewashing effect in which descriptions are less emotional
Govier adds, "Bland, abstract, polite language is used
to refer to things that would be found embarrassing, demeaning, appalling, or
Govier warns, “Euphemistic language [can] function to
desensitize us, to dull our awareness of such things.”
I would emphasize that not only can euphemisms desensitize
us emotionally, but also they can hide reality—including moral reality.
Interestingly, the dangers inherent in euphemism were almost
prophetically envisioned by George Orwell in his famous novel 1984 and in his lesser known essay
“Politics and the English Language.” Orwell put forward the idea that an
effective mechanism of political control is the manipulation of euphemisms employed
in public discussion. (A deeper look at Orwell's work may be a topic for
Here are some examples of useful but harmless euphemisms.
“I’m sorry that Sam passed away.” These words allow us to be
sensitive to Sam’s grieving wife and are infinitely kinder than saying, “I’m sorry
about Sam’s getting slowly crushed to death by the gravel truck.”
“May I use the washroom?” Yes, as any parent knows, these
words allow children to be sensitive to those around the dinner table. Respect
and politeness are good, to be sure.
Or consider these fun euphemisms (from Govier): “I’m
vertically challenged,” said jokingly by a short person; “I’m gravitationally
challenged,” said jokingly by someone who is overweight; “I’m follically
challenged,” said jokingly by someone (such as myself) who is balding.
But some euphemisms are not fun, can be dangerous, and are
Consider the following: “Gather intelligence,” versus spy
activity; “pacification centre,” versus concentration camp; “incontinent ordnance,”
versus off-target bombs; “friendly fire,” versus shelling friendly villages or one's
own troops by mistake; “terminate,” versus kill; “terminate with extreme prejudice,”
The phrase “terminate a pregnancy” is sometimes used to talk
about abortion, which is the destruction of a pre-natal child/fetus. But, of
course, birth terminates a pregnancy
The phrase "products of conception" is sometimes
used to describe the union of the sperm and the egg, which is (or so some
allege) no big deal to destroy. But human being with potential is a more informative description of what is destroyed.
Destroying a human being is a big deal.
Sadly, in the abortion debate the use of euphemism moves
from the merely bad to the downright ugly.
Consider this euphemism: “partial birth abortion.” Dare to think
about it. Such an "abortion" involves (a) delivering a late-term
prenatal baby until only its head remains in the birth canal, (b) then vacuuming
the baby’s brains out through the back of the baby’s skull, and (c) then
crushing the baby’s skull to facilitate complete birth.
Consider this euphemism, too: “After-birth abortion.” This
phrase has been used recently by some philosophers to describe—and justify—the killing
of live born babies. Seriously.
Alarmingly, the above abortion euphemisms have thwarted
careful moral thinking about abortion generally, late-term abortion in
particular, and infanticide—all of which many if not most people would find morally
problematic if they knew the reality hidden behind the words.
Are there any other euphemisms that should concern us
presently? What about "sex-selective pregnancy termination"?
I submit that the phrase “sex-selective pregnancy
termination” is a euphemism for the premeditated, deliberate killing of innocent
preborn children merely because they are female. In other words, I think that the
phrase is a euphemism for murder. And
I think the act of deliberately killing a pre-natal baby girl, because she is a
girl, remains a species of murder whether defended by cultural misogyny or an
ideology of unconstrained abortion rights.
Sadly, sex-selective abortion occurs in Canada. Happily, MP
Mark Warawa’s motion 408 seeks to stop it. (Sadly, motion 408 was deemed non-votable
last week by a Parliamentary sub-committee. Happily, Mr. Warawa is making an
To be sure, euphemisms can be useful, even good. Sometimes,
however, euphemisms can distort our understanding of what is real and thereby
mask—and encourage us to accept—horrendous evil. Such euphemisms are bad, even
Let’s be careful with our use of language—someone’s life may
depend on it!
(Hendrik van der
Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence University
College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)