Monday, January 30, 2012

George Carlin on euphemisms (4)

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. (Warning: profanity.)

And we have no more old people in this country. No more old people. We shipped them all away and we brought in these senior citizens. Isn’t that a typically American twentieth-century phrase? Bloodless, lifeless. No pulse in one of them. A senior citizen.

But I’ve accepted that one, I’ve come to terms with it, I know it’s here to stay, we’ll never get rid of it, that’s what they’re gonna be called so I’ll relax on that, but the one I do resist, the one I keep resisting is when they look at an old guy and they’ll say, “Look at him, Dan, he’s 90 years young.”

Imagine the fear of aging that reveals. To not even be able to use the word old to describe someone, to have to use an antonym. And fear of aging is natural, it’s universal, isn’t it? We all have that, no one wants to get old, no one wants to die, but we do. So, we bullshit ourselves.

I started bullshittin’ myself when I got to my forties. Soon as I was in my forties, I’d look in the mirror and I’d say, “Well, I, I guess I’m getting older. Older sounds a little better than old, doesn’t it? Sounds like it might even last a little longer.

Bullshit. I’m gettin’ old. And it’s OK, because thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won’t have to die. I’ll pass away (ovation) or I’ll expire, like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital, they’ll call it a terminal episode. The insurance company will refer to it as negative patient care outcome. And if it’s the result of malpractice, they’ll say it was a therapeutic misadventure.

I’m telling you, some of this language makes me want to vomit. Well, maybe not vomit. Makes me want to engage in an involuntary personal protein spill. (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.

No comments:

Post a Comment