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Call a spade a spade - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | Jul 28, 2022


Although many of us claim we tell it like it is, Johnny Grimond believes that indirectness is far more ingrained in our speech than we think

Every generation likes to think that, unlike its predecessors, it is honest, candid and bold in calling a spade a spade.

Of course, there are snowflakes who cannot face some of the ugly realities of life, and require warnings before being subjected to passages of Homer or Shakespeare, but they are a minority. Most of us are straight and blunt.

Or are we? Look around and you will see that euphemisms thrive.

Over the past year or two, we have heard much about ‘shortened lives’. That, of course, is a reference to those who have been killed by COVID. All such people have contributed to another unfamiliar term, ‘excess mortality’, used to describe the COVID victims who pushed the number of deaths to greater heights than would have been expected in a normal year. Some of them will have been given a ‘public-health funeral’. That used to be a ‘pauper’s funeral’. Many will be said to have ‘passed away’ or just ‘passed’.

No reasonably sensitive person wants to give unnecessary offence, so I don’t condemn all euphemisms. But I don’t think ‘die’ is an offensive word, whereas ‘passed’ is simply ridiculous. Your ‘loved one’ (another horror) has passed? Really? Like a driving test? Or a ship in the night? Or an inadvertently swallowed prune stone?

Many diseases used to be forbidden territory in conversation. In the 1950s, it was considered improper to say someone had cancer. That taboo has gone but others have appeared. Men are now said to suffer from ‘erectile dysfunction’, not ‘impotence’. If that is unsayable, I recommend men refer to their ‘flat tyre’, which I read is the euphemism of choice in Trinidad.

Social workers use the ‘dys-’ prefix too. They deal with ‘dysfunctional families’. We don’t hear much about ‘functional’ families, who I guess fall into Tolstoy’s category of happy families, which are all alike. Families tend not to be ‘poor’ these days. They may, however, be ‘vulnerable’, and their children ‘receive free school meals’, a proxy for ‘poor’.

Disabled children have ‘special needs’, though Sir Tom Shakespeare, a professor of disability research, has pointed out that their needs are usually far from special, being the same as yours and mine.

Children who have witnessed or been victims of an attack have had an ‘adverse childhood experience’. And now one school forbids its teachers to describe children’s behaviour as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, it must be called ‘skilful’ or ‘unskilful’.

Officialdom has always liked euphemisms. It uses marshmallow terms to disguise ugly or unpleasant activities, things or people. The police still seek a ‘person of interest’ to ‘help with their inquiries’. Once convicted, he becomes an ‘offender’. ‘Prisoner’ is indelicate, never mind its neutral connotations in terms like ‘prisoner of war’. Victims of crime are ‘survivors’, as though they have all been fished from the sea in a shipwreck. And all those killed in the Twin Towers in New York 20 years ago are ‘heroes’.

The Pentagon does not say American soldiers ‘kill people’; they ‘service the target’. Its practice of sending suspects to a country where interrogation or torture can be freely conducted is known as ‘rendition’. Lord Steyn, a former Law Lord, called this a ‘fancy word for kidnapping’.

Business and the professions are just as keen on obfuscation and sugar-coating. Airlines still practise ‘involuntary boarding denial’ (bumping passengers off overbooked planes). Cancelled trains are ‘paused’. Shoddy work in the building industry is ‘value engineering’. My fuel supplier is ‘updating’ its prices. Cornish fishermen have renamed spider crab ‘Cornish king crab’, and pilchards are ‘Cornish sardines’. A stoat-eradication programme in Orkney is called ‘biosecurity’.

As for fornication, an activity that often gives rise to a euphemism, new terms are seldom lacking. ‘Ugandan discussions’, dating back to 1973, has been joined by ‘watching badgers’ (Ron Davies, a Welsh politician, 2003), ‘slipping my moorings’ (David Petraeus, ex-head of the CIA, 2013) and ‘technology lessons’ (Boris Johnson, 2012-16).

Politicians, of course, never tell lies; at least they cannot be said by their colleagues in Parliament to tell lies. Sometimes they use ‘terminological inexactitudes’, but mostly they tell ‘whoppers’. Now that’s a good euphemism.