Euphemistically Speaking

Skunks, semantics and the art of spin

The other day, while toting my inquisitive four-year-old daughter to preschool, our chat about contemporary political corruption was interrupted by a familiar smell. Taking a moment at a red light to peer in front of the bumper of my Subaru, I stole a glance of the culprit: freshly squashed skunk.

After casually directing my kid’s eyes to the poor beast’s mangled remains, the following dialogue ensued:

“Pee yew! What’s that smell?”

“It’s the smell a skunk makes when it leaves this earth, sweetie.”

“Why’s it leaving?”

“Well, its time had come.”

“Its time for what?”

“Uh, its time to move on, sweetie pie. All living things have to move on at some point.”


“Well, I suppose that’s the way it was meant to be.”

“The way what was?”

“Uh . . . life. The way life was meant to be.”

“Where’s the skunk’s life?”

“It . . . it . . . left the earth, as I said before.”

“Will I leave this earth?”

“Uh . . . not now honey, I have to drive.”

Why couldn’t I simply have answered that the poor skunk was dead? End of story. Why did I feel the need to resort to these elaborate euphemisms?

In Other Words

Euphemism, according to Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, is the “substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”

Common euphemisms like passed away for died, let go for fired and mentally disturbed for deranged are meant to be instruments of kindness or compassion, a way to take the stinger out of difficult occurrences or hardship. Certainly, my motivation to protect my child from harsh realities was an attempt to educate and slowly initiate her into the world without overwhelming her developing psyche.

And for that matter, what about my own psyche? How do I adequately explain to a four-year old the concept of life and death when my own grasp on the subject is tenuous at best?

Surely this deflection away from the incomprehensible in favor of a more digestible reality still contains within it a poetic sense of truth. Perhaps Jesus himself understood this concept and decided to teach in parables (a close, rhetorical cousin to euphemism) in order to convey his message more effectively, more poignantly. Modern spiritual leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. have done the same. King’s sermons and speeches were replete with soaring metaphor and indirect references to the reality of oppression, leaving listeners both inspired to act as well as intellectually agitated –in the best sense.

But euphemism doesn’t always have such a benevolent aim.


George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four introduced readers to Newspeak, the language created and implemented by an all-powerful regime that aims to cloud the minds of citizens so they cannot see the truth of the oppression under which they live (symbolized by the all-knowing Big Brother) and to, in Orwell’s words “diminish the range of thought.” “Ungood” replaces “bad” and “uncold” substitutes for “warm.” “Goodthink” is the term for thinking in a way consistent with the goals of the regime, and a “thoughtcrime” is to do otherwise (usually signified by a “facecrime”).

How do I adequately explain to a four-year old the concept of life and death when my own grasp on the subject is tenuous at best?

The totalitarian societies of the 20th century (on whom the novel was based) remind us that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not purely fiction. Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler oversaw sophisticated propaganda machines that manufactured and disseminated euphemism as a tool of manipulation.

Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, helped to convince Germans that Jews and other “social undesirables” were to blame for the nation’s woes –the final solution (to the “Jewish problem”) was the name ascribed the Holocaust and concentration camp was widely used for the death camps in which millions were murdered.

Unfortunately, our desire to couch unsavory practices in more palatable terms is as alive today as it ever was. The international practice of child and sexual slavery is often referred to as the sterile-sounding human trafficking. Recent acts of genocide in nations such as The Sudan and Bosnia have been undersold by the antiseptic term ethnic cleansing. In the war on terror, extraordinary rendition is sending suspected terrorists overseas to be interrogated in countries not overly concerned with international law. Three years after the start of the war in Iraq, mission accomplished has a much different ring to it. Even our nation’s current environmental policy of aggressive deforestation is gently called the act of creating healthy forests.

Spin Art

Is there a difference between softening the impact of life’s great mysteries for a child and manipulating language to obscure the truth? The sometimes-bitter pill of reality certainly goes down easier with a spoon-full of sugar, but there is a price to be paid for acting like 4-year olds, who unlike my daughter, tamely sit in our car seats accepting reality as it is presented to us.

In our media-saturated age, the competition to attract an audience is unprecedented, and it shows no signs of abating. As a result, the ability to “spin” reality—whether by the media or the powers that be— in order to grab our attention is more tempting than ever. The scorekeeping in this contest is measured in dollars and power, but the unseen toll is in human lives and the decay of our ability to recognize the truth. (There are real lives on the other end of collateral damage after all.)

And while the media and our leaders may deserve part of the blame, ultimately the responsibility is ours. How can a healthy democracy exist without a discerning public? Edward R. Murrow’s paraphrase of Shakespeare when commenting on Joseph McCarthy’s scare tactics (recently resurrected in the film Good Night and Good Luck) proves every bit as relevant now as it was more than 50 years ago: “the fault is not in our stars . . . but in ourselves.”

Yet as I continued on our drive to my daughter’s school, it crossed my mind that Big Brother is likely not watching us, and euphemism, for the most part, does have its place. And come to think of it, when my time is up, I do hope I am referred to as one who has moved on or has met his maker–he died is so . . . final.