I was so sad to pop on my computer this morning and learn that award-winning comedian, actor and author George Carlin had died. I have always admired his wit, intelligence and insight, and especially appreciated his political humor. Carlin is probably most famous for his “Seven Dirty Words” routine, but one of my favorites is his riff on euphemisms and language. As he says, “You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth, even if it’s an unpleasant truth….I don’t like words that hide the truth.”
Carlin talks about how our culture (especially government and corporate officials) has come to use “soft language” and euphemisms to hide or distract from the truth. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the whole routine in one clip, but you can see the first part here (start at 2:14 and go to the end) and the rest here (start at 4:45 and go to the end).
There are plenty of other examples. Here are just a few that I’ve come across:
- explosion = spontaneous energetic disassembly
- Civilian casualties during the war = collateral damage
- Killing the enemy = servicing the target
- Genocide = ethnic cleansing
- Firing people = downsizing or right-sizing
- Sewage sludge = biosolids
- Clearcuts = vista enhancement
- Kill (animal) = harvest
- Landmines = area denial munitions
- Torture = tough questioning/physical persuasion
- Prisoners of war = enemy combatants
- Death/labor camp = joycamp
- Subdue by force = pacify
- Factory farm = concentrated animal feeding operation
- Kill an animal (usu. In lab setting) = sacrifice
What other ones have you heard?
Language is such a powerful tool. It has influenced and shaped the beliefs and actions and values of billions. Language can be extremely persuasive. It can help people empathize; it can make people angry; it can spur people to action, both violent and peaceful. But language should be used with compassion and awareness. It should always be accurate. It should be truthful. It shouldn’t be used to hurt or destroy.
Consider your own words before you speak, and think about the meaning and intent of words that seem less than straightforward. It’s what George would have wanted.