Euphemism: A mild, indirect or vague term for one that is considered harsh, blunt or offensive.
Jargon: The specialized language of a trade, profession or similar group when viewed as difficult to understand by outsiders.
There has been a lot of talk about the term “alternative facts” lately, an improvised way of saying, “You have your facts and I have mine.” Facts aren’t supposed to be optional, though you can pick and choose the same facts to make divergent points. That expression could qualify as both a euphemism and jargon. Mostly it qualifies as silly.
The most common euphemisms are used for death, sexual terminology and bodily functions that may be uncomfortable to talk about. It’s also common in hospitals and other purveyors of health care because of disgusting things that happen to us that require their intimate attention.
Medical words and expressions exchanged among doctors and nurses are often described as jargon— much of it unflattering and not meant to be heard by patients. 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 are never far away from a patient. 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, as previously noted, they don’t make harmful, scary or offensive things seem harmless. They have quite the opposite impact.
When it comes to 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. It 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,” which means bombing an area before sending in the ground troops;
- “expectant,” an Iraqi with a critical head injury and expected to die, and
- “dead checking,” which is finishing off all wounded combatants in a location believed to be occupied by insurgents.
The last two examples come from our continuing war on terrorism. Of course, “finishing off” is a euphemism for killing. Some military euphemisms become part of the vocabulary of American business.
In the military a furlough is something that gives you an opportunity for some rest and recreation (R&R) with an understanding that you are coming back to resume your duties. In industry it started as a temporary layoff to justify some difficult decisions, but those furloughs are often just an initial step toward becoming permanent. The term “laying off,” by the way, is less jarring than terminating or getting rid of.
As noted at the beginning of this column, the word “alternative” is becoming a popular word in a growing mountain of euphemisms. One of them is “alt-right,” which refers to far-right radicals like neo-Nazis other racist organizations that justify and encourage violence. It has been described as “giving a cute name… to hate groups.”
This naturally gave birth to “alt-left,” which is especially popular with Fox News and
refers to liberals and causes like the Women’s March in D.C. and other cities. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are regarded as alt-left, but though they may indeed be far left in their views, most don’t advocate violence. Well, maybe Madonna if she really meant the comment about blowing up the White House.
Trump is more a jargon guy than a euphemistic guy become he’ll seldom soften the blow when he responds to a real or inferred insult. It was “Crooked Hillary,” after all, and not “Less Than Forthcoming Hillary.” His former opponent, however, has already been credited for a euphemism for telling a lie. Talking about those emails that some blame for her losing the election, she said she was truthful about that subject but that “I may have short-circuited” on her recollections. Hence short-circuit becomes a euphemism.
In closing, 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 the term “percussive maintenance.” We all do it. When all else fails, we just keeping hitting something until it works.