Published on
the Guardian/UK

Oh for God's Sake, Say What You Mean

Mariella Frostrup

I'm thinking of compiling a collection of my favourite euphemisms. The vogue for them among the chattering classes should guarantee a bestseller, though with my track record for moneyspinners, there's probably a collection already in its 10th reprint.

'Extraordinary rendition' is a joy, particularly because it's often explained as 'like ordinary rendition, only extraordinary'. You'll agree that makes things so much clearer!

'Comfort zone' is another classic, failing entirely as it does to conjure any lavatory I've ever visited. But zooming into my top 10 is the currently omnipresent 'sub-prime'.

At least in the Nineties, we weren't afraid to call a slump a slump. While in America a financial tragedy is occurring among the poor, we've gripped on to their phrase and are trotting it out, as if it might save us.

Time makes optimistic fools of us all. Following years of healthy scepticism, I had just reached the point where I believed that house prices could only keep on going up, everyone would soon be able to afford organic produce and, with Gordon Brown in sole charge, schools would flourish, hospitals would be spick and span and we'd all give up our daily latte to help the poor of Africa. Then came the collapse.

Like 'comfort zone', the genius of 'sub-prime' is in the fact that it completely fails to evoke the human misery and grim reality it refers to. It's a skill we are honing to perfection as we evolve, disguising anything in our lives that we find unpalatable.

I went to dinner recently with a woman who ordered sea bass, but met the arrival of her chosen dish with a blood-curdling cry so loud fellow diners dropped their cutlery.

Her horrified reaction was prompted by the audacity of the chef in serving something that looked like the original fish. The sight of the head and tail was a reality check too far for my fragile friend.

She may sound ridiculous, but in many ways she's just a slightly more extreme case than the rest of us.

Friendly fire, sub-prime, ethnic cleansing, even global warming with its suggestion of balmy days ahead represent the ultimate in spin.


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Such euphemisms, beloved of Americans and increasingly popular here, blanket us from the trauma of reality and ensure we remain apathetically inactive on our strict showbiz diet.

Ironically, with nemesis so cunningly disguised, it often takes a celebrity with a camera crew to remind us of the human cost of just standing by; take Ross Kemp in Afghanistan.

At least Nero fiddled (or played with his lyre) while Rome burned. I worry that we would have been too busy trying to come up with a comforting euphemism even to do that.

Give us a whirl, Dick

Making The Book Show for Sky Arts can lead to unlikely encounters in the green room. Last week, Shopaholic bestseller Sophie Kinsella and Professor Richard Dawkins found themselves penned together in hospitality.

Kinsella arrived in a dazzle of enthusiasm, announcing that she had been 'rushing around like a dervish'.

Tucked in his corner, the author of The God Delusion raised one silvery grey eyebrow and allowed a moment to crank up all relevant parts of his mighty brain. 'Dervishes don't rush,' he announced in a tone that plunged me back to the schoolroom, 'they whirl.'

He then rose, outstretched his arms, crouched down and began to spin around at a snail's pace fixing his eye rather hypnotically on Kinsella: 'Very slowly, like this.'

His performance left us all in a state of entrancement not unlike that sought by those whirling dervishes themselves.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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