March 02, 2009

The Social Significance of Euphemisms

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Why do we use words like “troops” and “escorts” to sanitize our discussions of difficult, disturbing, or controversial topics, like war and sex?

There has been much talk of bringing the “troops” home and of “troop” casualties. This seems to make it easier to talk about the people we send into war even as many don’t come home intact or living.

Similarly, during the Eliot Spitzer scandal, news organizations described, prostitutes as employees of “escort” services. By using the word ”escort” instead of “hooker” or prostitute, we seem to make the light of the fact that an elected official paid for sex.

Why do we use language this way?

Sociologically, there may be quite a few reasons why – none of which may be satisfying when the situation hits home for you.

clip_image002[5]We may use these more benign words in an effort to avoid antagonizing the political opposition or to avoid reminding people that war puts human lives at risk. Talking about troops (or during the early days of the Vietnam War, “advisers”) instead of people in military services helps us justify their use in war times; they seem less like human beings when we refer to them with such words. Nor does the phrase “civilian casualties” fully illustrate the human toll of warfare. In contemporary conflicts, there is rarely a clip_image002separate battlefield, and people with nothing to do with fighting are often injured or killed. We certainly would not think of the victims of 9/11 only as civilian casualties. In fact, I bet you can name some people whom you may have never known yourself, but news coverage about their lives reminded us that they were “just like us” in many ways. When you hear the phrase “civilian casualty” it’s hard for most people to identify with them.

Using the word “escorts: when we talk about prostitution also makes a difficult and controversial topic more palatable. In fact, it also trivializes it and erroneously suggests that the escorts were providing companionship rather than sex.

Using such words helps us to talk about difficult topics – those for which emotions run high and that we may not be able to calmly discuss otherwise. When we distance ourselves in this way from a highly emotionally charged situation, we can see that situation from a different light---not necessarily better, just different.

The way we sanitize our medical examinations is a similar behavioral exercise. When we go to our medical professionals for an exam, we may be asked to disrobe and then expose ourselves to these professionals. The rituals surrounding that practice help to isolate it from our everyday experience. For example, we use the gowns and sheets for draping, (i.e., modesty), and at least one other person in addition to the doctor or nurse giving the exam is usually present. If an embarrassing event occurs, everyone in the room usually puts it in a clinical context.

Such are the norms surrounding very personal and sensitive subjects. These behavioral rituals help us to define what we do in such situations and allow us to downplay any potentially embarrassing or deeply personal consequences. By allowing us to sanitize sensitive situations with euphemisms, our linguistic norms also give us space to save face or avoid shame or embarrassment. Sociologist Erving Goffman explored how we do this in his classic 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all work to construct the most positive impression of ourselves as possible. Word choice is one way we do this. For instance, “global warming” became recast by critics as “climate change” by those who didn’t want to change environmental policy. Spin doctors do this for a living, and can make lots of money coming up with new words for difficult issues

What other words have you seen used as replacements for more difficult, disturbing, or difficult concepts?


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The most obvious one that comes to mind is "Operation Iraqi Freedom", a term that doesn't necessarily imply and sort of warfare at all. I also had an experience not long ago at the gynecologist, where when discussing a birth control method I used the term "unwanted pregnancy". The doctor gave me a look and said, "Unintended pregnancy." Any unwanted pregnancy is certainly unintended, and I don't take issue with "unintended" or "unplanned" per se, and if someone used them in a conversation I wouldn't bat an eye, but the fact that she corrected me the way she did made me feel like they were trying to cut out the very real and serious physical, mental, emotional and other issues that can arise out of an unwanted/unplanned/unintended pregnancy.

I would venture to say that the labels are not the real issue here. When people put words into contexts such as "escort" or "troops". It hides the real meaning when these types of labels. It is a way for society to justify or at least forget about certain Total Intuitions such as the military or prostitution rings. If you are not a member of one of these groups you will never know their true meanings. We the everyday actors are just viewing these phenomena through a glass window. I come from a military family so I feel I have room to say what I have to say on this topic. It almost seems that collectively we down play these events so much that we almost forget what they actually are. The mass media has a big affect on why we do this. For example talking to my older brother who just came back from Iraq about "causalities", someone who was there in the thick of it, is a lot different than talking to someone I met at school who has no idea the magnitude and true emotion surrounding the issue. We choose to care about what is pertinent to us at that particular time in our lives, not what is actually going on. Think about it, everyone reading this post was probably all gung-ho about something or another in their life and have no real affiliation whit that, what ever that may be anymore. Even thought what ever that is most likely is still flawed.

This was a very good article, I think people use Euphemisms in every day life and it has become a norm in our society. We use words like senior citizens instead of old people, there are many more. Its a way to lighten the conversation and I dont think make less important but for younger children put in words that they may understand.

I think that there are very good examples of euphemisms found when a manager fires an employee 'letting go', 'going in a new directin', or a new one to me 'you're outplaced'. Not only does it soften the blow for the employee, but it also is desensitizing for the boss to say any of these rather than 'you're fired'. When delivering bad news our society attempts to formalize their words, making it a business matter and removing all personal responsibility or compassion towards the person being fired.

This article is interesting because it asks the question that an everyday person would not think to ask, which is a large part of sociology: researching and examining the obvious.
I feel that media plays a large part in how we perceive situations. For instance, when hearing about troops or politicians with hookers, we hear it from the media. Not everyone knows a person in the military, and not everyone knows a politician who has hired a hooker, so most of us are hearing it from the middleman: the media. Without the media, a lot of this information would be absent from this society, and I feel that euphemisms would not be as much of an issue. But we do have media, and media does play a large part in our society, so euphemisms are a huge issue.
Euphemisms are used to cover up the bad stuff-- to make the bad stuff sound acceptable. Of course it isn’t acceptable for a politician to hire a hooker, it isn’t acceptable for anyone to do that in my opinion, but then when it is made public information, for the media to make it seem ok by using the term “escort” instead of “hooker” or “prostitute” just throws the idea out there that it is ok for everyone to do it, no risks involved at all. Do you ever hear them saying “did their escort give them an STD”? No, of course not, because that would make the situation negative.
There is no way to avoid the use of euphemisms. We do it in ourselves in everyday life. An example would be me talking about my “love life” because god forbid I talk about my “sex life,” how vulgar. Another example would be saying someone “kicked the bucket,” it is a less-harsh way of saying someone died. Euphemisms can provide an easier way to cope with certain situations.

"Climate change" is used instead of "global warming" because the problem isn't necessarily warming. The initial warming can melt cold water into ocean currents which can make certain parts of the world colder, or induce drought or floods. It's a more accurate term that describes all the effects rather than just the instigating one.

very useful site. Thanks for informations

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