They're weedy. They're sly. They're strangely addictive. They're impossible to get rid of and, in wartime, they're more noxious than patriotic fumes. But that's what makes euphemisms language's nimblest double agents, its cheapest mercenaries, its most sought-after plastic surgeons: A euphemism does to reality what botox does to facial muscle. It croaks it. No other death brings so much life to so many. Without euphemisms every politician would have to declare bankruptcy, every priest would have a crisis of conscience, every corporation's annual report would be dangerously truthful, to its shareholders anyway.
Imagine a world without such meaningless words as "closure" where cannon fodder isn't masked as "boots on the ground," and where phrases like "this will not stand" and "stay the course" are taken out back and shot. We should be so lucky.
Adam's fig leaf was history's first euphemism, a fall from grace more damning of human history than Eve's apple bite. At least Eve, hotheaded liberal that she was, was seeking knowledge. Ever the wuss, Adam took the first step toward hiding it. He couldn't hack the naked truth. And then there was spin. When God asked him what he'd done, he blamed it on his girlfriend. Adam, you see, was God's gift to public relations, that fountain of euphemisms against whose currents reality never stops swimming.
In 1990 the sewage industry created a Name Change Task Force to come up with a less smelly, more positive name for its chief product. Suggestions, a 1998 article in Harper's related, included "bioslurp," "humanure," "hu-doo," "sca-doo" and "nutri-cake." The industry settled on "biosolids," then used $300,000 in taxpayer money to "educate the public" about sludge's new name. By 1998, Merriam-Webster dropped the word "sludge" from its definition of "biosolids," thus not only acquiescing in a public relations coup, but in ratifying a lie: "biosolids" are neither wholly organic, as the word implies, nor solid. If even sludge can be made to seem so fetching, there really are no limits to the power of euphemisms -- and to the gullibility of a public that eats them up.
But if euphemisms, like germs, had one purpose above all others, it is to ensure that wars never run out of fans, fodder and folly. The public would think twice about sending soldiers to battle, let alone men and women. Soldiers are human beings of flesh and blood and families. "Boots on the ground" are a Tom Clancy fiction, abstract and as disposable as movie extras falling in heaps of ketchup-sauced battle scenes. Then there's the long and healthy history of military-speak for killing -- rub-out, bump off, eliminate, blow away, waste, smoke, clip, whack and, the current favorites, neutralize or "take them out." Blowing a man's brains out from a distance is called "pink mist," assassination is called "regime change" and propaganda is called "public diplomacy." The sanitizing makeover disarms the truth of the original word enough to make it meaningless or enticing.
The reigning king of euphemisms in the current war surplus is the word security. The word has been warmed up for battle in the most familiar places. We have "security" in schools, in malls, at the county fair, at public meetings, in theme parks, in corporate lobbies. So when we hear of security companies helping out there, we think in terms of those benign adjuncts of safety who greet us at the door and tell jokes along the way. We don't think of them as a force of 20,000 mercenaries, militias unto themselves armed with the latest weaponry, but without the discipline, the oversight or the accountability of GIs, at up to 20 times the pay of regular soldiers (some make $500 to $1,500 a day), and all at taxpayers' expense. We don't think of them as exactly the sort of vigilantes we would not want greeting us at the door. Why should Iraqis?
The four men who got killed and dismembered in Fallujah were soldiers of fortune who died gruesome deaths as soldiers, and have provoked the most gruesome acts of American revenge to date. (The bloodletting against civilians in Fallujah is an atrocious story that has yet to make it into the mainstream press.) The casualties among "security" contractors, of which there's been hundreds, aren't tallied among military casualties any more than Iraqi casualties have ever been tallied, thus camouflaging the slaughter and outsourcing the cost of the war itself: It is being privatized, taken off the books. When you no longer have to mask what's already hidden, euphemisms become superfluous. And that may be the greatest achievement of this war. Reality is irrelevant. It has been subcontracted to a Name Change Task Force. So yes, sure, we're "staying the course." But anyone who claims to know what that means anymore, the president included, is full of nutri-cake.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him by e-mail at email@example.com
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