Everyday Theology: Euphemisms make lies sound truthful and murder respectable

"Euphemisms have been around at least since biblical times when to uncover a man’s foot was an idiom for making sexual advances."

Someone challenged my use of the term “physician assisted dying”, describing it as mealy mouthed. I had used the term while commenting on the Carter decision, which deals with assisted suicide. In retrospect, my choice of language was a bit wimpy. I was doing what people have been doing for millennia, opting for a euphemism instead of speaking plainly.

Euphemisms have been around at least since biblical times when to uncover a man’s foot was an idiom for making sexual advances. Today, as in the 10th century, people “sleep together”, and everyone knows the intention behind an invitation for a “nightcap”.

In classical times, “curled up”,  “gone to sleep”, or “on a journey” were euphemisms for death. Now, we “pass away”. Depending on the circumstances, we might even experience a “negative patient outcome.”

The human body and its functions are a rich source of euphemism.

The English language has over 2500 words for the body’s “private parts” and numerous phrases to describe natural functions.  Before it was polite to say that a woman was pregnant, or for a pregnant woman to proudly display her “condition”, she was “with child”, “in the family way”, or (my personal favorite dating from Victorian times) had “a bun in the oven”.

While some euphemisms help us navigate our way around embarrassing, painful or taboo subjects, others help us save face or elevate our position.

Corporations that want to bolster their bottom line “downsize” and respected managers get “the golden handshake”.  Someone who is unemployed is “between jobs” or “making a career change.”

Secretaries and janitors have gone the way of the dinosaurs with “administrative assistants” and “sanitation engineers” stepping into fill the void.  Perhaps one day, “pedagogical mentors” will replace teachers.

Then there are those euphemisms that fool us into thinking we are clever and enlightened. “Monogam-ish”, a term recently coined by sex columnist Dan Savage, falls into this category. To be monogam-ish is to be mostly faithful to your partner, while embracing affairs as a normal and healthy part of a committed relationship.  The media encouraged debate on the validity of monogamy and invited people to describe their experience of being monogam-ish.  But if we are to be truthful, monogam-ish is nothing other than plain old-fashioned infidelity once we remove the smokescreen of language.

Equally dangerous are those mealy mouthed phrases that sugarcoat the unpalatable and disguise inconvenient truths. “Collateral damage” sanitizes the loss of human life, and “enhanced interrogation techniques” masks torture.

And what about “physician assisted dying”, the term for which I opted?  At one time, we talked about  “mercy killing”, and more recently, “assisted suicide”.  But since we have no appetite for state sanctioned murder, we have found increasingly more complex ways to describe a questionable action. “Medical aid in dying” and “physician assisted dying” camouflages the truth, desensitizing us to the reality of killing.

Euphemisms are The Emperor’s New Clothes of language, obscuring reality, swindling our conscience and leading us away from truth.  So while indirect speech allows us to talk politely about awkward, embarrassing or painful subjects, it can also, to quote George Orwell, “make lies sound truthful, murder respectful and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at mcewan.lou@gmail.com