The recent images of children in cages provided yet another reason to throw your head into your hands over America’s inhumane treatment of immigrants. So – for most of us – it was a great relief to hear that Donald Trump eventually gave into pressure and signed an executive order to stop enforcing the laws mandating the separation of children from their parents. But there are still many hundreds of young people detained in the euphemistically termed “tender age shelters” – in reality, prisons for children and toddlers.
Who comes up with these terms? They are not fooling anyone – especially as “tender” and “shelters” have completely different meanings to what is, in fact, the enforced separation of children who are then held in cages. That’s the trouble with euphemisms – they can enrich language, but in the hands of politicians they can be strategically used to mislead and disguise brutal practices, concepts and ideas. Euphemisms – or what are known in some quarters as “weasel words” – are used to conceal the truth of unpalatable situations or practises so that they are easier for the public to accept.
Who can forget “collateral damage” – or rather the incidental deaths and injuries of unintended and non-combatant victims? The euphemism - from the Latin word collateralis, which means “together with” – was adopted by the US military in the mid-20th century to describe the unintentional deaths that occurred “together with” the targeting of legitimate targets. The term was first used in the 1961 article “Dispersal, Deterrence, and Damage” by Nobel Prize-winning economist D.C. Schelling. He argued that weapons could be designed and deployed in such a way as to avoid collateral damage and thus control the war.
Historically, euphemisms are part of the rhetorical speech styles (from the Greek rhêtorikê) associated with the oratory skills necessary for political speeches, where persuasion is primarily the intended effect. Rhetoric can be defined as the “art of discourse” or, more precisely, the “art of persuasive discourse”. It is the ability to persuade an audience mostly through linguistic strategies.
This style of speaking dates back to classical times and to Aristotle and his concept of “logos” or how audiences are persuaded by the reasoning contained in an argument conveyed by the speech. “Logos” represents what Aristotle called one of the three “modes of proof” – along with “ethos” (which relates to the speaker’s personality and the audience believing that the speaker is trustworthy and honest) and “pathos” (where persuasion is evoked through emotions, brought on by engagement and empathy).
According to Orwell in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, the use of euphemisms also helps to avoid the mental images that more direct language would conjure up. Take, for example, the ambiguous language of “doublethink” and “newspeak” in Orwell’s dystopian 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification … Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Euphemisms are not just limited to politician-speak, they are very much part of everyday communication and can be found in abundance when dealing with taboo subjects. They help us to politely navigate our way around talk of death, sex, sexual orientation and genitalia. Expressions such as “economical with the truth (read "lies”) and “tired and emotional” (read “drunk”) are now so embedded into our vernacular that no-one pauses to think twice about these indirect word choices. But, for politicians, weasel words are an integral part of the rhetorical toolkit – a style of spoken or written language that functions to persuade.
It didn’t take long for the Trump administration to wheel out one of the more ridiculous euphemisms of recent times. The day after Trump’s inauguration, the counsellor to the US president, Kellyanne Conway, came up with the much-derided “alternative facts” to counter accusations that the then White House press secretary Sean Spicer had lied about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration.
Politicians of all stripes quickly come to realise how useful it can be to soften the impact of unpopular actions with some carefully chosen weasel words. Former UK prime minister Tony Blair was a great user of euphemisms in his political discourse. Many examples can be found in his interviews and speeches in 2003 to justify the Second Gulf War on Iraq, for example. He spoke of the “liberation of Iraq” (meaning occupation), “peace-keeping” (meaning war) and these could only be achieved by “removing Saddam” (meaning his death rather than forcing him from a position of power).
A decade earlier, the slaughter, torture and imprisonment of Bosnian Muslims in Serbia was described as “ethnic cleansing” when there is nothing purifying about these war crimes.
The US government’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” is another example of strategic word choices to disguise systematic torture. When he was US president, Barack Obama tended to avoid using the word “war”, preferring to use words such as “effort”, “process”, “fight” and “campaign” to describe the military action against ISIS, Iraq and Syria as it lessens the violence that war connotes.
Euphemisms have become part of political discourse that intentionally obscures, misleads or distracts audiences from unpleasant truths. Unfortunately, this is what politicians do with language and this is how they win support for otherwise unpalatable policies.