In his short poem ‘Casualty’, Gerry Abbott responds to the use of euphemisms for killing often seen and heard in the media. Terms such as ‘taken out’ and ‘friendly fire’ have become commonplace in British newspapers and news broadcasts but he questions the role that these euphemisms play in the reporting of war stories.
He looks first at the use of euphemisms in daily life as a way of avoiding delicate or taboo subject matter and refers to these as ‘respectful’ euphemisms. Included here are terms such as ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to meet their Maker’ to refer to dying, the dead become ‘deceased’ and often the dead are not ‘buried’ but ‘laid to rest’, with the grave becoming their ‘last home’. These, he says, are used as acts of social kindness and show concern for the feelings of our fellow human beings.
He then turns his attention to the increased use in recent years of military euphemisms used in war reporting. He points to subtle differences in terms such as ‘friendly fire’ and ‘collateral damage’. Both terms are used to refer to the accidental (or ‘careless’ as Abbott puts it) act of killing people but the former refers to combatants killed by their own side while the latter refers to civilians caught up in the crossfire. He is especially scathing of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ which has pleasant connotations of healing and hygiene when, in fact, it is used to refer to the deliberate mass slaughter of civilians. These, he argues, are not respectful in purpose but are ‘deliberate attempts to obfuscate military actions, to hide their mistakes and to excuse the perpetrators’.