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Euphemisms are sneaky.

When propagandists use glittering generalities and name-calling symbols, they hope to arouse their audience with vivid, emotionally suggestive words. At other times, the propagandist seeks to pacify the audience by making an unpleasant reality more palatable. They do this by using bland and inoffensive words known as “euphemisms.”

Since war is particularly unpleasant, military discourse is full of euphemisms. In the 1940s, America changed the name of the War Department to the Department of Defense. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration renamed the MX Missile “The Peacekeeper.” During wartime, civilian casualties are referred to as “collateral damage,” assassination is called “liquidation,” and physical torture is called “enhanced interrogation.” In the 1990, diplomats and politicians used the bland phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe the mass murder of more than 100,000 people in the former Yugoslavia and more than 800,000 people in Rwanda.

The comedian George Carlin notes that, in the wake of the first world war, traumatized veterans were said to be suffering from “shell shock.” The short, vivid phrase conveys the horrors of battle — one can practically hear the shells exploding overhead. After the second world war, people began to use the term “combat fatigue” to characterize the same condition. The phrase is a bit more pleasant, but it still acknowledges combat as the source of discomfort. In the wake of the Vietnam War, people referred to “post-traumatic stress disorder”: a phrase that is completely disconnected from the reality of war altogether.

Euphemisms are also common in the corporate world. Just think of the many words that institutions use when announcing massive layoffs. Phrases such as right-sizing, downsizing, reduction in force (RIF), realignment, and letting employees go sound much more pleasant than saying “Today, we fired three dozen long-time employees in our Seattle branch.”

There are certain questions one can ask when confronted with euphemisms.

  • How is the speaker attempting to make an idea or program sound more appealing?
  • What are less palatable synonyms for the euphemism in question?
  • Why is the speaker disguising the reality of this program?

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