The Art of Circumlocution and Verbal Evasion: Exploring Euphemisms

by Marsha Rakestraw

“You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth, even if it’s an unpleasant truth….I don’t like words that hide the truth.” ~ George Carlin

We use euphemisms every day, words and phrases that are a less direct or “nicer” way of talking about uncomfortable, harsh or sensitive topics.

Sometimes they can be useful.

Recently my family had to make the choice to have our 20-year-old cat euthanized. “Euthanize” is such a harsh and sterile word to describe something that is still incredibly painful. So we might say “We lost our cat” (as if we misplaced him) or “He’s started on his next journey” or “We had to put him to sleep.”

It’s common for guardians of companion animals to talk about them “crossing the rainbow bridge.” There isn’t much harm in using these euphemisms; it’s a way of helping ease our pain and enable us to better cope with a tragedy.

And there are also word choices and ways of framing that help empower, such as talking about a person with a visual impairment, instead of a “blind person.” In the former, the emphasis is on the person, not on labeling a disability.

But often euphemisms and the way we frame language can have a powerfully detrimental impact.

George Carlin has a classic routine about how our euphemisms minimize and dehumanize.

During the 2014 controversy wherein the Copenhagen Zoo killed Marius the giraffe, animals killed in zoos were referred to as “surplus to the genetic needs of a zoo program,” and in a larger conversation about the issue, one official used this language: “… zoo officials euthanize offspring that do not figure in breeding plans.”

An essay on Poynter.org from 2006 explores the challenges for journalists of their word choices and the bias and framing that accompany such choices. As the essay’s author, Roy Peter Clark, says, “the responsible choice of words is one of the most important and common challenges in American politics and journalism. Consider these phrases:

  • pro-choice vs. pro-life vs. pro-abortion vs. anti-abortion
  • illegal alien vs. illegal immigrant vs. undocumented worker
  • refugee vs. evacuee
  • invasion vs. incursion vs. police action
  • prisoner of war vs. enemy combatant
  • Islamo-fascist vs. jihadist vs. terrorist vs. Muslim fanatic vs. Iraqi insurgent.”

Skim the headlines or listen to talk show pundits, and you’ll find numerous examples of incendiary and misleading word usage.

We talk about “radicals” and “extremists” when we think others’ views are far beyond what we consider “right” and “normal.”

We toss out words like “feminazi,” “ecoterrorist,” “right-wing nutjob,” “traitor” or “evil” as if they have no influence on anyone — just combinations of letters that pour out of our mouths and fall harmlessly on the ear.

Here are just a few examples of euphemisms and reframing that I’ve come across:

  • explosion = spontaneous energetic disassembly
  • civilian casualties during the war = collateral damage
  • killing the enemy = servicing the target
  • genocide = ethnic cleansing
  • firing people = downsizing or right-sizing
  • friendly fire = when soldiers are accidentally killed by their comrades
  • sewage sludge = biosolids
  • logging clearcuts = vista enhancement, thinning
  • kill (nonhuman animal) = harvest, sacrifice, cull, thin
  • landmines = area denial munitions
  • torture = tough questioning, physical persuasion, enhanced interrogation
  • prisoners of war = enemy combatants
  • death/labor camp = joycamp
  • subdue by force = pacify
  • factory farm = concentrated animal feeding operation, industrial agriculture
  • kill an animal (usually in a lab setting) = sacrifice
  • the information was wrong = subject to minor discrepancies
  • lie = misspeak, be economical with the truth, commit terminological inexactitude, relay misinformation
  • assassination = wet work, executive action
  • Holocaust = final solution
  • invasion = intervention
  • prison = internment facility
  • poor = economically disadvantaged

Because language is such a powerful tool that has influenced and shaped the beliefs, actions and values of billions, its use (and misuse) is a vital topic for exploration with students.

Quite a lot has been written about euphemisms and language framing. With older students, you may want to collectively read an essay like this one from The Economist, discuss the content and then look for similar examples.

Students could launch a euphemism scavenger hunt, looking in the news media for examples of how language is used to manipulate emotions, context and perspective.

And the National Council of Teachers of English each year gives out a Doublespeak Award as “an ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.” The examples from past recipients provide great fodder for discussion.

Doing a Web search for “euphemism lesson plans” brings up several ideas.

Euphemisms serve a positive role in society, but it’s also essential that we are able to unpack the hidden meanings and misleading word choices that may be used to cause harm (or hide or skew the truth).

Exploring euphemisms and the power of language is an important way for humane educators to help empower students.