John Leo
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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).

In politics, Republicans and Democrats seem to be evolving separate languages or, at least, long lists of different nouns. Democrats warn of “global warming”; Republicans talk calmly about “climate change.” Democrats are starting to call themselves “progressives.” Republicans just say “liberals.” Other Republican/Democratic partisan pairs include trial lawyer/personal injury lawyer, death tax/estate tax, collateral damage/civilian dead, quotas/goals and timetables, campus race preferences/race-sensitive admissions, indoctrination/sensitivity training, faith-based/religious, school choice/school vouchers, personal accounts/privatization, tax relief/tax cuts, illegal/undocumented, fetus/uterine contents, military difficulties/quagmire, rendition/shipping captives out for torture, racial charlatan Al Sharpton/civil rights activist Al Sharpton, John Kerry’s weaseling/John Kerry’s nuanced approach.

Most of us have no problem using the word “terrorists” for people who regularly blow up innocent bystanders for political effect. But the mainstream media still shun the “T” word in favor of “insurgents” or “the resistance.” The “insurgents” in Iraq aren’t really “insurging.” They are blowing up large numbers of random people. But the press keeps talking about activists, rebels, militants, fighters, assailants, attackers, hostage-takers, etc., etc. Some media outlets are willing to refer to “acts of terrorism,” as long as they don’t have to call the people who perform those acts “terrorists.” We have sin, but there are no sinners.

In America’s clone wars, politicians have argued for years over the alleged distinction between “therapeutic cloning” and “reproductive cloning.” But the only difference is in the intent of the scientists who manipulate the embryos. The procedures and the biological entities created are the same.

The problem for euphemizers is how to get rid of the scary words “clone” and “embryo.” Early efforts to create soothing new terms such as “ovasome,” “embryolike entities,” and “activated egg” failed to catch on. So the International Society for Stem Cell Research opted for jargon. The word “cloning” was dropped in favor of “somatic cell nuclear transfer” to produce “human NT blastocysts,” from which scientists in South Korea, who did not utter the word “clone,” recently extracted “hESC.” Sustainable language added. Linguistic problem solved.

For help on this column, my thanks to William Lutz, author of Doublespeak Defined and a distinguished authority on false and deformed language.

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John Leo

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

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