Political Euphemisms: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Comfort or Deceit?

A euphemism is a gentle word or expression for a harsh or offensive term. Instead of “died,” for example, we often say that someone “passed away” or a pet was “put to sleep” — or “the cat’s on the roof…”

Consider this dark humored joke:

Tom goes on vacation and asks his brother Bob to take care of his cat. Tom calls to say hello, and Bob says the cat died. Tom is grief-stricken. He suggests Bob could have broken the news to him more gently: “When I called, you could have said, ‘The cat’s on the roof and won’t come down.’ The next time I called you could have said, ‘The cat was injured during the rescue and is at the vet's.’ The third time you could have told me, ‘The cat succumbed to his injuries.’ That way, I would have been prepared for the bad news.”

Bob says he understands, and adds: “Mom’s on the roof.”

Doublespeak

But euphemisms are also often used to mislead and hide the truth. This is also referred to as doublespeak—evasive, ambiguous language that is intended to deceive or confuse. Politicians in all political parties, here and around the world, are deft at using the English language to disguise the truth. And this use and misuse is not new.

Let’s take the time to see what we can learn from some common political euphemisms used in speeches, tweets and other remarks. You may also hear these terms referred to as “verbal camouflage.”

Post-truth

The euphemism post-truth was born during the 2016 political season, including the Great Britain’s Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election.

It’s similar to the idea of propaganda, but can be used widely, describing or pointing to circumstances where public opinion is influenced less by factual information, and more by appeals to already-held beliefs or emotions.

Journalists often use the euphemism to describe politicians. In a Huffpost blog, Mahir Zeynalov writes:

We’re now living in an era where leaders can tell such endless lies without facing any public retribution. The Economist calls this an era of “post-truth politics.” From Trump to Erdogan and to Brexit leaders, these politicians rely on “assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact.” Feelings, not facts, “are what matter” in this sort of politics.

Investment

Using the word investment as a euphemism is meant to hide unpopular government spending. In 2011, an editor at the National Review wrote:

“Pres. Barack Obama hopes to be saved by a euphemism. [...] He is wagering on the power of the word ‘investment.’ It sounds so market-oriented and cutting-edge in contrast to its more pedestrian, politically fraught synonym, ‘spending,’ especially the toxic ‘deficit spending’ that, to this point, has defined Obama’s presidency.”

Anchor Baby

Sometimes, a euphemism is an offensive term. Anchor baby is a phrase for a baby born to an undocumented mother in a country where the baby becomes a citizen at birth. The term stems from a belief that the birth is planned to facilitate eventual legal residency for the family.

In Aug. 2015, a reporter questioned Donald Trump about his use of the term “anchor baby.”

“You mean it’s not politically correct, and yet everybody uses it?” Trump said. “So you know what—give me a different term. Give me a different term. What else would you like me to say?”

The reporter suggested “American-born child of undocumented immigrants.”

“Oh, you want me to say that instead, OK? No, I’ll use the word ‘anchor baby.’ Excuse me—I’ll use the word ‘anchor baby.’”

Job Creators

The term job creator is considered a creative way to refer to the wealthy or elite business executives and investment bankers. This euphemism is typically ascribed to Republicans in the US.

In Oct. 2012, Paul Ryan, who was then supporting Mitt Romney for president, tweeted:

“At a time when America has a jobs crisis, wouldn’t it be nice to have a job creator in the White House?‪ @MittRomney is ready to lead.”

Enhanced Interrogation

Enhanced interrogation is a euphemism for the torture of prisoners. It’s often a double euphemism, in which prisoners are called detainees.

“Enhanced interrogation” was coined by the Nazis, but in more recent years, the term has described the US government’s use of water-boarding, sleep deprivation and other systematic torture during the George W. Bush administration, from 2001 to 2009. The term detainees also came into use at that time, referring to the roughly 780 people who were held at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

In Dec. 2014, former Vice President Dick Cheney defended the administration’s use of extreme interrogation techniques on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: "I would do it again in a minute,” he said. “There’s no comparison between that [9/11] and what we did with the respect to enhanced interrogation.”

Collateral Damage

Collateral damage is another way of saying: incidentally, civilians were killed in a military attack. The euphemism was adopted by the US military during the Vietnam War.

The 2002 movie Collateral Damage, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is about a family man who seeks revenge after his wife and son are accidentally killed by a terrorist whose intended targets were members of a consulate and other intelligence agents.

In April 2017, after the Pentagon announced it had dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the military “took all the precautions necessary to prevent civilian casualties and collateral damage as a result of the operation.”

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