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Adjustment? When bafflegab trumps plain truth

When in a bind, reach for a euphemism. It's soft, it's light and it wraps your words in a veil of finest pretense.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford vowed during the 2010 election campaign to derail the "gravy train" of public overspending, a phrase that helped him win the top job. Although he did not receive a majority of the votes cast, he appealed to a significant constituency with his promise to restore fiscal sanity without inflicting pain. "I will assure you," he said in October of 2010, "that services will not be cut – guaranteed."

This week, Ford brought forth his proposed city budget for 2012. Among other measures, it calls for reducing the Toronto Public Library's budget for open hours and collections, reducing hours at arenas, closing shelters and ending recreational programs. In short, services will be cut – guaranteed.

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However, politicians don't like to say they promised more than they could realistically hope to deliver. So Ford reached into that fuzzy bag of euphemisms and pulled out the word "adjustment." "Through our core services review, service efficiencies and modest service adjustments," he said, "we found $355-million in savings this year."

How benign it sounds. Services will be adjusted. They won't be slashed, reduced or cut back. They will be gently adjusted, the way one adjusts a seatbelt or uncomfortable clothing. And the adjustments won't be flashy. They won't draw attention to themselves the way they would if, say, the services were being improved, expanded or adjusted upward. They will be modest.

For services rendered to English understatement, "adjustment" has earned a place in several dictionaries of euphemisms, whose authors are both amused and irritated by the degree to which bafflegab trumps plain talk.

For instance, Hugh Rawson's Dictionary of Euphemisms & Other Doubletalk notes the use of "adjustment downward" instead of "decline." "The phrase is much favoured by accountants," he writes, "especially when preparing glossy annual reports on companies whose stock has dropped." Modulators of language speak of rolling readjustments rather than recessions.

R.W. Holder's How Not to Say What You Mean defines adjustment as "an adverse price movement." "If you are buying," he writes, "a price adjustment means you will pay more. ... However, if you own shares, an adjustment means the prices have gone down."

Patrick Scrivenor's Egg on Your Interface: A Dictionary of Modern Nonsense says that to adjust means "to alter something to one's advantage without blatant falsification. The high euphemistic value of adjust lies in the smallness of the alteration implied, and in echoes of 'just' in the sense of 'fair.' Together they convey a sense of precise and justified change." In other words, this won't hurt a bit, until it does.

As Scrivenor also observes, adjust is not related etymologically to just. Just derives from the Latin jus, law or right, which also brought us justice and injury. (The "in" in injury meant "not"; thus, a negated right.)

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Adjust entered English in the early 1600s with the sense of settling or bringing harmony to something. It derives by way of the Old French ajoster (to approximate) from the Vulgar Latin adjuxtare (put close to), which in turn comes from the Latin ad (to) and juxta (near), a combination that gave us juxtapose, to place near.

Ad and juxta produced another word – joust – which in Middle English meant to bring near to join battle. Toronto artist Catherine Raine used the word in a posting on her website last January, in reference to a mural of a knight brandishing a book marked TPL, for Toronto Public Library.

"When I studied this champion of literacy, my thoughts turn to city politics. 'Let Rob Ford verbally joust with this righteous force of tax dollars well spent,'" she wrote. "Confronted by a literary equestrian and his upraised book, our mayor might tremble in his cost-cutting boots."

On the evidence, that would take some adjustment.

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