The sorry state of rampant euphemisms

Joyce Wong, Renaissance College

Officials have a regrettable tendency to downplay disasters and their own role in them by beating about the bush

Joyce Wong, Renaissance College |

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Since the beginning of this year, the world has witnessed one historic event after another. First came the uprising in Tunisia, followed by mass protests in several countries in the Middle East. The situation has come to a boil in Libya, which is facing a protracted civil war.

Meanwhile, a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit northeast Japan. Dangers of a nuclear meltdown are still with us more than a month later.

Yet despite the severity of the events, governments have often tried to obscure things with euphemisms.

Euphemisms are intended to make unpleasant or embarrassing things sound more pleasant. Yet there is a fine line between trying to be polite and trying to hide the true meaning of things.

In their statements about the troubled power plant, Japanese officials have assured us that the situation was "stable, relatively speaking", and the matter was "under investigation".

Such expressions are deliberately vague so that they obscure the reality of what is happening. Even some of the Japanese public, which is well used to indirect pronouncements by officials, has spoken out against the lack of honesty and clarity.

It is true that there is a need to avoid alarming people needlessly. Yet hazy statements can both confuse people and erode their trust.

Officials have issued conflicting statements to citizens about the scale of the nuclear disaster.

First, they tried to downplay it, then bit by bit they began telling more and more people to evacuate from the region. The situation is obviously far more catastrophic than it was initially claimed.

Of course, it's unrealistic to ask for complete transparency. Yet officials should learn to accept that no important development can remain concealed for long in the age of the internet.

Likewise, euphemisms like "military intervention" and "enforcing a no-fly zone" serve to obscure bloodshed and mayhem.

But they fool nobody. Their frequent use has ensured that people have learned to figure out the true meaning of such carefully constructed phrases.

Officials use euphemisms to suppress public panic and also to minimise embarrassment to themselves. But they would earn great credit with the public by being frank.