Euphemistically Speaking

You've heard a lot over the past months about the recession with its massive layoffs and millions of people unemployed. Well, I have good news: No one's been laid off at all. That's right. They've simply experienced what one Vermont firm called-and I'm quoting here-"a career change opportunity." When General Motors closed one of its plants, the company called it a "volume-related production schedule adjustment." It didn't mention all the people who were adjusted right out of the production schedule. When Chrysler closed a plant, it announced that it was initiating "a career alternative enhancement program." Bet those workers out pounding the pavements were grateful for the opportunity to enhance their career alternatives. What we're seeing here is a rash of euphemisms-misleading verbiage designed to paper over life's harsher realities. And to allow those responsible to sleep a little easier at night. Business is not the only culprit. Education is one of the worst offenders. Students don't fail any more. They "achieve a deficiency"-which sounds like something to be proud of. Tests are called "evaluation instruments." And they're not used to find out whether students can read but whether they can "construct meaning from the text." If you like your child's teacher, you mustn't tell her she's good. You must say she has excellent "instructional delivery skills." Even the schoolbus driver has been gussied up with a new title: She's now a "certified adolescent transportation specialist." Those of you who support the work of Prison Fellowship will be interested to learn that solitary confinement is now called "involuntary administrative segregation." And some states have renamed Death Row the "capital sentences unit." Sounds so much more benign, doesn't it? The Department of Defense is another fertile source of euphemisms. Today's soldiers are never surrounded or ambushed. Instead, they "engage theenemy on all sides." They're never outnumbered either. They simply "operate in a target-rich environment." In the Gulf War, killing the enemy was referred to as "servicing the target." Missing the target and killing people you didn't mean to hit was called "collateral damage." At some hospitals patients never die, they just experience a "negative patient-care outcome." And governments never raise taxes, they "enhance revenues." I wonder if Benjamin Franklin's proverbs would be remembered today if he had said "There's nothing certain in life but negative patient-care outcomes and revenue enhancement." The examples I've listed are all genuine, documented in The Quarterly Review of Doublespeak. Some are just silly, but the overall trend reveals something profoundly disturbing. People invent euphemisms when there's something they don't want to face -a risk or responsibility or painful experience. The explosion of euphemisms in our language today indicates an unwillingness to be honest and straightforward-to let our yays be yays and our nays be nays; to accept responsibility for our actions. We refuse to face reality. And so we clutter up our language with post-consumer secondary materials-excuse me, I mean with garbage. And hope in that way to hide the negative net worth-I mean the bankruptcy-of our ideas.


Chuck Colson



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