John Leo
It’s a living language. But sometimes it’s dead on arrival when people toss around euphemisms and gobbledygook. If a hospital charges $58 for a “thermal therapy unit,” what is the patient getting for the money? Answer: an ice pack. Suppose a patient spots an “optical illuminator enhancer” entering his room. Should he be alarmed? No. The visitor is a window washer. If a doctor removes a patient’s right kidney when he was supposed to remove the left one, no problem. It’s merely an “error of laterality.” And if a doctor tells you that your medical problem is “supratentorial,” back out of the room swiftly and go get a second opinion. He is saying that there’s nothing wrong with your body—the problem is in your mind.

Shipments of imported shrimp often undergo “organoleptic analysis,” which requires little training. It means smelling food to make sure it’s fresh. A recent annual report says that the Walt Disney Co. is targeting “pre-families” (single people and childless couples), though of course it still welcomes “post-family” customers (widows, widowers, and empty nesters). Many companies now employ a “director of first impressions,” also known as a receptionist. The fancy title “IT strategic sourcing analyst” refers to a computer programmer. In the National Hockey League, the salary cap is known as a “floating team payroll range.” A Pittsburgh steel company, liable to pay workers a great deal of money if it closed a mill, halted all operations and tried to argue that it wasn’t really shutting the place down, just “indefinitely idling” it.

A commission named by the Church of England came up with a positive new name for couples who live together without benefit of marriage. It’s “covenanted relationship,” formerly nonmarital cohabitation, shacking up, and living in sin. In food euphemisms, the poor Patagonian toothfish, which few people wanted to eat, became the delicious and popular Chilean sea bass, and Britain’s downscale pilchard is now the fashionable Cornish sardine.

The list of euphemisms for firings keeps growing. Downsize, rightsize, derecruit, and outplace are old hat. New ones in Britain include “selected out through performance management assessments” and “agreed departures” (“Wilson, I hope we can both agree that you’ve just been fired. Now get out”). Also in England, firing someone is referred to as “icing,” from ICE— “involuntary career event.”

In finance, we have the terms “negative cash” (debts) and “operating investment” (government spending). Tessa Jowell, Britain’s secretary of state for culture, offered these examples of bureaucratic gobbledygook: “sustainable eating in schools” (more fruits and vegetables) and “regional cultural data feedback rollout” (getting new information from different regions).

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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