Euphemisms. They seem to be cropping up with increasing frequency.
Some words are harsh or unpleasant, making it appealing to find a kinder, gentler way to express your idea. For example: we call used cars pre-owned, label vinyl as less appealing than genuine imitation leather, and say those incessant telemarketers simply make courtesy calls while you try to enjoy your dinner. People say someone is senior or mature instead of old, passed away or departed instead of died, and economically disadvantaged instead of poor. You can probably think of many more examples.
Corporate America uses euphemisms too. Instead if eliminating jobs, they downsize, right-size or rebalance their workforce. And the Personnel Department has gone through a series of euphemisms, including Human Relations, Human Resources and Human Capital.
The government and military are perhaps the biggest users of euphemisms. Someone who has been neutralized has been killed, enhanced interrogation methods describe torture, and collateral damage means – oops, we also accidentally killed too many people.
Most of the time the meaning of the euphemisms is clear. Sometimes it is harder to decipher the message.
There Are Consequences To Using Euphemisms
What many (and perhaps most) of the euphemisms used to describe people have in common is they dehumanize the people. They reduce people to objects or concepts instead of recognizing them as human. This breaks the emotional connection and desensitizes even decent people. It is a dangerous practice.
Tyrants understand the power of dehumanizing people, and use euphemisms to make it easer to murder, abuse or otherwise mistreat people. The euphemism serves as a huge judgment that begs for a challenge. The Nazis used euphemisms to dehumanize the Jews. Likewise, the military (who I am not equating with tyrants) finds euphemisms make it easier to train people to kill, something that is hard to do when you talk about real people.
Well meaning people also take advantage of the power of euphemisms. Corporations find it easier to talk about eliminating capital than people. (At the same time, how many employees really like being called “wealth with the characteristics of human beings”.)
When using euphemisms, it serves you well well to pay attention to the effect. Are you distorting your message? Is your message getting obscured in a swarm of words? Does your word choice make it easier or harder for others to understand your intent? Are you, intentionally or not, manipulating feelings? Will this set yourself up for accusations of judgment or bullying?Ultimately, fewer, simple words best convey your message. Use euphemisms carefully when it is necessary to soften the effect.