Monday, May 9, 2011

George Carlin on euphemisms (1)

The late comic George Carlin (pictured), a keen observer of language, had a lot to say about euphemisms. For example, here’s a transcript of a portion of one of his routines from the late 1980s.

I don’t like words that hide the truth; I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms, because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it.

And it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse. I’ll give you an example of that. There’s a condition in combat – most people know about it – it’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum – can’t take any more input. The nervous system has either snapped or is about to snap.

In the first World War, that condition was called shell shock.

Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables: shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was 70 years ago.

Then a whole generation went by, and the second World War came along and the very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now; takes a little longer to say; doesn’t seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock.

Shell shock. Battle fatigue.

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison Avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now.

Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then of course came the war in Vietnam, which has only been over for about 16 or 17 years. And thanks to the lies and deceit surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen, and the pain is completely buried under jargon.

Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ll betcha if we’d have still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam Veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. (Ovation.)

The Takeaway: Every euphemism falls somewhere in the spectrum between polite forbearance and malicious deceit. As a writer, you need to know, at all times, where you are in that spectrum. I won’t presume to tell you never to deceive, but as a writing coach I have a duty to tell you not to deceive unintentionally. As Oscar Wilde quipped in an analogous context, “A true gentleman is one who is never unintentionally rude.”

See disclaimer.

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