It’s time to take a break from current events for something that makes a little more sense. I will revisit a topic I’ve written more about over the years than anything else. I am referring, of course, to the fascinating English language. I don’t know where I’d be without it, even though I have abused, mistreated and even abandoned it on occasion. And yet I still love it. All those words, phrases and expressions are out there just for the picking like low-hanging fruit for a starving dwarf. *Political correctness advisory! The word “dwarf” is still acceptable, but “midget” is regarded as derogatory by the Little People of America. So forget I mentioned the last one.
I may be borrowing from past commentaries here, so if it sounds familiar, consider it an album of golden oldies that you don’t mind listening to one more time. For starters, I became fascinated by early radio some time back and the use of similes on the old detective and suspense shows. Something like the one I used in the previous paragraph. I spent a lot of time reading through old radio scripts, mostly from the 1940’s, and I submit the following random similes as among the fruits of my labor (with no dwarfs involved).
- His despondency hung around his neck like a dead skunk.
- He felt so worthless he sometimes wondered whether he deserved his own shadow.
- Memories of his childhood jumped him like muggers in a dark alley.
- Her alibi was as tangled as my grandmother’s yarn.
- Undoing the damage he had done would be like putting toothpaste back in the tube.
- He couldn’t change his story now. He was dug in like a tick on a beagle’s belly.
- All their fears melted away like snow around a campfire.
- It was like exchanging stares with a statue. Not much had been accomplished.
- His belly preceded him like a cowcatcher on a locomotive.
- There wasn’t much of a choice. It was like deciding whether to jump from the 23rd or 24th floor.
- He wasted away like a popsicle on a warm day.
- The audience seemed unmoved by his performance, as if they were a giant oil painting.
- He seemed out of place like a violin in a marching band.
- He has the curiosity of a dead cat. (And the imagination of a comatose slug.)
- The book was a tough read, as if somebody threw all the words in a blender and hit the whip button.
- Truth to some politicians is like a dictionary to an illiterate man. He doesn’t know how to use it so sometimes he just has to make it up. (Okay, I just made that one up with nobody particular in mind.)
Military and War: Nobody Euphemizes Better
Euphemisms have overtaken colorful, blunt and insulting language to temper offensiveness and enhance sensitivity. A euphemism is defined as “a mild, indirect or vague term for one that is considered harsh, blunt or offensive.” Note: When you think about it, euphemize does have something in common with euthanize.
The most common euphemisms are used for death, sexual terminology and bodily functions that may be uncomfortable to talk about. When it comes to strategic euphemisms, there is nothing quite like war.
The Department of Defense used to be the Department of War. It is, after all, easier to justify defending yourself than making war. War is not such a negative thing if you are going to war against a bad thing like terrorism or poverty. Since the very nature of war requires us to kill other human beings, we had to make some aspects of it less offensive. That’s why the military came up with “casualties,” for example. It may mean lost, damaged or destroyed and often refers to subjects other than human beings. Casualty originally meant “a chance happening.”
Of course, we all know that collateral damage refers to casualties (a.k.a. deaths and injuries) of innocent or untargeted people and structures.
According to what is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which refers to the language of the military: “Euphemisms are a form of modified language that changes perception. Because the language acts as a barrier and hides the real truth, it inhibits emotion.”
Friendly fire is not so friendly. It is really accidental and usually a tragic error if injury or death occurs. I had a friend in Vietnam killed by friendly fire, as the result of an errant rocket fired from a helicopter during a Viet Cong attack on a supply depot. That also made him collateral damage.
Other military euphemisms include:
- “softening up,” or bombing an area before sending in the ground troops;
- “expectant,” an Iraqi with a critical head injury who is expected to die, and
- “dead checking,” which is finishing off all wounded combatants in a location believed to be occupied by insurgents.
The previous two examples come from our continuing war on terrorism. Of course, “finishing off” is a euphemism for killing in case that wasn’t clear. Some military euphemisms become part of the vocabulary of American business (and increasingly in modern politics).
Euphemisms are also common in hospitals and other purveyors of health care because of disgusting things that happen to us that require their intimate attention. The euphemisms are for patients and their families, but when the docs and nurses talk among themselves they often use jargon, which might be called the opposite of euphemisms.
Jargon: The specialized language of a trade, profession or similar group when viewed as difficult to understand by outsiders.
Medical words and expressions exchanged among doctors and nurses are often unflattering and not meant to be heard by patients. Who can blame them, especially during dark days many have been dealing with lately? For instance, a “beached whale” is an obese patients who is incapable of doing much physically except lie in bed. Then you have “beating off angels,” which is continuing CPR on a patient who isn’t going to make it. “Guts and butts” is a term for general surgery. “Velcro” refers to spouses, parents and others who stick as close to a patient as their shadows. And then there is a “tax sucker,” who is person who calls an ambulance when it is not needed. A patient who is a “call button jockey” or “pillow fluffer” is constantly seeking attention from the nursing staff.
They may come across as demeaning and cynical, the dark humor you might expect from people who devote long hours dealing with death, illness and injury. Therefore, they don’t qualify as euphemisms because they don’t make harmful, scary or offensive things seem harmless. They might have quite the opposite effect to an outsider.
We get different responses for the expressions “illegal aliens” and “undocumented workers” when they mean pretty much the same thing. Banks and other financial institutions will often refer to “underperforming assets” when they are really talking about bad investments and not assets at all.
My favorite term in my latest research on euphemisms is “percussive maintenance.” We all do it. When all else fails, we just keeping hitting something (like the vending machine and maybe the office printer when nobody is looking) thinking we will get it to work.
Some Last and Very Long Words
Finally, since before I get accused of being too long-winded (if you can really get winded from typing) it might be appropriate to revisit some of my observations in the past in a commentary entitled, “For Those with a Longing for Long Words…”
Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to the words we choose to use, but that doesn’t mean we’re not impressed by them. Most of the all-time longest words were in other languages, not English. The exception may be place names, as is the case with a lake in Massachusetts named Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. That’s 45 letters with the letter “g” repeated 15 times. We’ve vacationed in Vermont at Lake Memphremagog, but that moniker, which was impressive at the time, seems tiny compared to the former (which I don’t have the energy or space to repeat). Both share Native American origins.
Of course, those of us who escaped childhood before “Mary Poppins” premiered on American movie screens in 1964 learned that the longest legitimate word meant being opposed to the invalidation of a nationalized religion, particularly the Church of England. That word was antidisestablishmentarianism, but it took a made-up word comprised of 14 syllables and 34 letters to fit in the lyrics of a catchy song— supercalifragilisticexpialidocious—which, if you say it loud enough, “is bound to sound precocious.”