The world of business and politics share a tactic when they want to communicate some unsavoury news to their audience: euphemisms. One thing that US President Trump is good at is to communicate his sharp messages in no uncertain terms, even if his utterances are often abrasive, intolerant and lacking in empathy.

Euphemisms, jargon and doublespeak are ingrained in political and business language. They are as much a cultural phenomenon as a linguistic concept. The financial crisis which led to millions of people losing their jobs has spawned popular euphemisms which both government and private organisations find convenient to use, to protect them from embarrassment.

Neil Postman in his book Crazy Talk Stupid Talk defined euphemism as “an exalted term used in place of a down-to-earth term, or an attempt to give prettier term to an uglier reality”. Some linguistic historians agree that the most famous political euphemism was uttered in 1945 by Emperor Hirohito of Japan when he informed his subjects of their country’s unconditional surrender after two atomic bombs and the loss of three million people with invasion looming.

His terse message was: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

George Orwell wrote that obfuscatory political language is designed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”. Both political and business euphemisms may have the intention to distort and mislead while others may be motivated by kindness.

The social environment with its prejudice and taboos often gives rise to euphemisms to protect the private element of people’s lives. ‘A confirmed bachelor’ often referred to a homosexual and someone ‘burdened by occasional irregularities in his private life’ could meaning anything from a person being an adulterer to being prone to commit lewd acts.

The comedy series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister is full of political euphemisms.

When Sir Humphrey Appleby told Minister Hacker that a decision he was about to take was “courageous” he was actually saying that Hacker was about to ruin his political career by an unpopular move.

Labelling a political decision as ‘adventurous’ is even worse as it often means ‘mad and unworkable’.

Be prepared when you hear a British speaker starting a sentence with the words ‘with the greatest respect

When the public is told that in a Cabinet meeting there was ‘a robust exchange of views’ it implies that there was ‘a full-scale shouting match’.

Euphemisms are so ingrained in British speech that those for whom English is not their first language often miss the signals contained in such bland remarks.

Be prepared when you hear a British speaker starting a sentence with the words ‘with the greatest respect’. This introduction often means that the speaker believes that ‘you are mistaken and silly’.

This is just a respectable code that allows a speaker to express anger or outright disagreement without making emotional investment that may later prove embarrassing.

‘Right-sizing’ so often used by businesses in the past several years means ‘mass sackings’. A more novel but equally disgusting euphemism is ‘investment lay-off’ which again means sacking employees.

The most recent euphemism for making people redundant was coined in 2016 by the computer company Infosys that announced an ‘orderly ramp-down of about 3,000 persons’.

The marketing world is perhaps the most prone to using euphemisms. Business euphemism is best illustrated by the lexicon of property salesmen.

A ‘vibrant’ neighbourhood (Paceville?) is deafeningly noisy, while an ‘up and coming’ area could well be one that is crime ridden or at least a slum area.

Property with a ‘scope for renovation’ means decrepit while a property described as ‘would suit an enthusiast’ means ‘a ruin fit for a madman’.

According to Lucy Kellaway, a prolific columnist of the Financial Times, one of the most abused words in business communication is ‘leaders’.

Not every CEO or even a manager is a leader especially as they may have no one to lead even if their duty may involve taking onerous decisions.

Doublespeak implies an intent to mislead or deceive, while euphemism implies an attempt to soften something harsh.

The term doublespeak was coined in early 1950s. It is often attributed to Orwell and his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Some examples of double speak in business communications are ‘headcount adjustment’ used by Nokia Siemens when they decided to lay off people as a result of restructuring.

Other examples of doublespeak for firing people are: counselled out, let go, dismissed, terminated, services no longer required.

Lexicographer Bergen Evans of Northwestern University in the US, believes that euphemisms persist because ‘lying is an indispensable part of making life tolerable’.

johncassarwhite@yahoo.com

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