Political Euphemisms Galore

September 24, 2015, Chennai

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Euphemism (eu + pheme = good speech, in Greek) is defined as “an inoffensive or indirect expression that is substituted for one that is considered offensive or too harsh”.  Most politicians indulge in uttering euphemistic phrases in their campaign speeches. In the old days they promised “a chicken in every pot” (meaning affordable food prices), “a car in every garage” (at-will transportation), “a television for every household” and the like to get elected.

George Orwell said, “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible….thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness”. So using euphemism is not without its advantages. It is a tool used by politicians and bureaucrats to direct how an issue is defined and discussed.


Political Groups: In addition to major political parties which contest the elections and seek power in the legislative and executive roles, there are political groups, some of them non-profit and others funded by vested interests. These groups have political agendas such as civil rights, abortion, health care, schools and education, and other social issues. Pro-Choice is one such euphemism floated by those who insist on their rights to determine whether they want to keep a fetus to grow to full-term or abort it for various reasons. Pro-Life is a term used by those fundamentalist Christians who are against abortion. People align with either of these groups and emotions run strong. It is ironical that some members of the Pro-Life organization resort to killing doctors who perform abortions. Embryo Reduction Procedure (ERP) is used as a substitute for abortion in order not to inflame those opposed to the word “abortion” itself.

Government: Garden of Honor is a substitute for Veterans’ graveyard that sends a noble gesture to those who fought in wars for their country. Support the Troops is a phrase designed to provide endorsement and backing of the armed forces. More particularly it is designed to seek support for policies that govern warfare. Surge means an increase in the number of military personnel. It cushions the shock of the sound of war drums. Let us look at some terms which seriously try to cloak certain negative terminology. Axis of Evil was a term used by the Bush Administration to describe countries with defense policies and international relations opposed to those of the United States. It appealed to the hawks and doves as well since everybody hates evil.  Enhanced Interrogation Techniques is a soft term for physically focused torture to elicit information from terrorists or prisoners of war.

Undocumented Workers is a glorified term for gainfully employed illegal aliens. Fiscal Restraint is the term favored by those who are against spending money for social services to aid the people in the lower economic stratum of society. By the same token those who are for that measure call upon the government to help the underprivileged a term used to describe the poor. Those who are elected to the legislative body of a government want to spend government money in their own districts. For this purpose they introduce a measure called Legislatively Directed Spending, which is a decent term for what is generally known as Pork (wasteful spending) in political circles and called earmark or set-aside by those who favor it.  More recently we have a new term to describe the US government plan to dispose of toxic financial assets of several businesses. That goes by the name Legacy Securities Program. Sounds like a civilized term. “Legacy assets” sounds investor-friendly. One term that deserves the award for hypocrisy is Inoperative statements which in plain language means “lies”. Richard Nixon’s press secretary admitted that the statements made by that administration during the Watergate era were all lies without saying that exact word.

Politicians: We have two recent incidents connected with politicians which give new meanings to past behavior. The governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, who had an extra-marital affair in Argentina, sent reporters looking for him in the Appalachian Trail (in the US) a few months ago. Finally when he admitted to the affair he described the encounter as meeting a Soul mate. It is a decent term to camouflage the disagreeable “mistress”. A former senator from North Carolina, John Edwards, likewise denied an affair with a campaign worker. When that campaign worker delivered a baby there were rumors that John Edwards was the father, which at first he denied vehemently. Recently he admitted to the paternity of that child who is now two years old. The media called the baby a love child, as though regular children born through marriage are not born of love. At least the media did not characterize the child as illegitimate. There is no such thing as an illegitimate child—only illegitimate relationships. The child did not participate in the infraction and would definitely abhor that label of illegitimacy.
In general, euphemism is a proxy for dishonesty. It is an attempt at deception in the name of inoffensive description but there is no hiding the fact that it is an attempt at self-deception as well. Euphemisms can eventually become taboo words themselves through repeated use because they mean exactly the words they replace. The euphemisms begin to strike as hard as the original words once they become commonplace, as the words darn and heck were overused that many people feel offended as though they heard the words damn and hell all over.