Michael Enright is a writer and broadcaster who was a host for CBC Radio.
We are all aware of air pollution and water pollution. We are surrounded by them. But I think we are less aware of another pernicious contamination: euphemisms, which are polluting the English language.
The Economist calls it the “euphemism treadmill”: a very contemporary urgency to avoid using any words or phrases that might offend someone, somewhere.
A dictionary definition of euphemism is “a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be harsh or blunt when referring to something embarrassing or unpleasant.” You know, like, um, modern life.
The constant use of euphemisms goes way back in our linguistic history. The most common example is how we flee from the word death. On CBC Radio, people don’t die; they “pass away.”
By energetically avoiding the word, we think we can blunt death’s sting. Disguise the condition, and perhaps we can avoid it altogether.
Although I have to admit that I fancy the euphemism used by the Salvation Army. Salvationists don’t die; they are “promoted to glory.” In some Mennonite communities, the dead have “graduated.”
The issue of euphemism pollution erupted earlier this year over reports of the reworking of some of the fiction of Roald Dahl, in particular some of his children’s stories. Words scratched from some of his work include “fat” and “crazy.” Free-speech advocates, including Salman Rushdie, screamed that this was censorship, but in fact it was more an act of bowdlerization.
Thomas Bowdler trained as a physician, but he never practised medicine. Instead, he devoted his life to cleaning up what he considered offensive language in English literature. In 1818 he published The Family Shakespeare, eliminating “words and expressions which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”
We live in an age of feelings, not facts. There is a growing belief that if we can soften the harsh, the blunt and the uncomfortable, we can anesthetize a distressing reality so as to make it if not completely anodyne, then at least palatable.
But the euphemisms we use to do so are cold, bloodless, dehumanized, impotent and boring uses of a language that sparkles in muscular, red-blooded, vivid descriptions of life.
Now, to be fair, the advocates of euphemism use are kind-hearted, well-intentioned folk who simply want to mitigate the pain of a broadly hurtful reality. And they are absolutely correct when they insist that words can and do hurt.
Some decades ago, my daughter would have been described as “retarded” or “feeble-minded,” even within the medical establishment. Today, thankfully, she is recognized as having a developmental disability, a phrasing which is far less painful.
Similarly we have purged the ugly word ”cripple” from our vocabulary. We started with disabled, moved on to handicapped and evolved to “person with a disability.”
The problem is that the first step on the road to Pleasantville can lead to all sorts of syntactical twists and turns.
For example, some people, even in our media, find the word Jew too pointed, harsh even, to the ear. They prefer the softer “Jewish people.”
It is quite possible – likely, even – that a war on the euphemism is doomed to fail. There is no putting the language toothpaste back in the tube.
And so we will go on passing away. Our used cars will remain pre-owned. We will not be fired but let go. We won’t send people to prison but to a correctional facility. I will not be called a liar, I am simply creative with the truth. I’m not really sick but rather under the weather. I’m not an old man; I’m a senior citizen or a golden-ager.
As the late great comedian and philosopher George Carlin once noted: ”At some moment in my lifetime, ‘toilet paper’ became ‘bathroom tissue.’ And nobody consulted me.”
In an era of Trumpism and Fox News, when lying and distortion are common currency, it is more critical than ever that we call things for what they are. If we stop or fall back from calling a thing what it is, we run the risk of losing what is real, or at least diluting our understanding of it. On top of which we siphon the lifeblood out of the language.
It is almost impossible to meander about the English language without nodding in the direction of the master of us all, George Orwell.
He said this: “The English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts … if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
And this is not a time for any of us to be foolish.