Morning… er, listen? I’m a big fan of John McWhorter’s writing and I’m always interested in what he has to say. In this episode of his “Lexicon Valley” podcast, he addresses the “Euphemism Treadmill” in his typically engaging, learned way. His conclusion: such euphemism chains (e.g., “crippled” thru “differently abled” and beyond) are inevitable and basically a good thing.
I kept waiting, though, for him to bring up the other kind of euphemism, the kind of malign propagandistic sort, like “ethnic cleansing”, “enhanced interrogation” and so forth. The closest he comes is to cite, with wry approval, an idea that never got off the ground, re-naming taxes as “membership dues” to give the whole idea of taxation a kinder, gentler reputation. That’s a silly one and worth only an eye-roll, but the others, the Orwellian ones: not so much.
“Membership dues” would become malign very quickly if its use were coerced, it seems to me. Coercion is the main factor that pushes euphemism to the dark side, or at least the worst factor, but there’s also an evasion of responsibility embodied in a term like “enhanced interrogation,” and it often works very well at doing just that. And there’s social coercion as well, mobs of people keen to punish those who speak “wrongly,” who fail follow a prescribed etiquette; and the evasion hovers there, too, when effective internet witch hunts and intolerance are justified with justice-y sounding hashtags. Not to mention the “softening” of language and concomitant lack of precision identified by Orwell and lamented by George Carlin. Coercion and evasion, and perhaps being imprecise, are things that people love to do, whether through their governments or in their own spare time. That’s not likely to change either, human beings being what they are.
But I’m still basically on the team of Orwell and Carlin when it comes to euphemisms.