Thursday 14 July 2011

Do euphemisms soften the impact of war or mask the truth?

‘He had been trained to take out other men.
We had made sure his weaponry was smart,
And softened up the enemy with carpet
Bombing. Sadly, he was taken out
By some friendly fire.’
Instead he could have taken out some girls,
The mirror having proved him smart enough;
And one, perhaps, happy to take him home,
Might have softened up on some dark carpet
By some friendly fire.

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’.
Of course, as Abbott acknowledges, euphemisms thrive in spheres other than military contexts. He points to terms such as ‘creative accounting’ and ‘massaging’ to mean the falsifying of financial records and the use of ‘climate change’ when meteorologists mean climate damage. In Parliament, where members are not permitted to accuse each other of lying, phrases such as ‘economical with the truth’ and ‘created a false impression’ have sprung up.
The main thrust of this paper, then, is that the use of euphemisms in these contexts points to a lack of truthfulness. Abbott proposes that acronyms such as WMD (‘weapons of mass destruction’) to refer to powerful missiles and bombs should be uttered/written in full and replaced with ‘weapons of mass death’.
 Abbott, G. (2010). Dying and killing: euphemisms in current English. 
 English Today 104 Vol. 26 (4): 51-52. doi:10.1017//S0266078410000349

This summary was written by Sue Fox

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