Friday 6 May 2016

On Writing: The Deadly Art of Euphemism

Orwell, in 1945, speaks about the language of politics at a time when the second of two world wars is coming to an end. He contends that 'political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible', of such acts as 'British rule in India', 'Russian purges and deportations' and 'the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan' (1945, 2013, p.14). He argues that it is impossible to defend such indefensible acts without the use of euphemism (ibid). Little has changed in the intervening years, the indefensible still happens but the euphemism might have changed. Some examples Orwell discuses are:

  • When defenceless village people are bombed by planes, driven out and their homes and livestock destroyed this is called 'pacification' (Ibid).
  • When millions of deprived people are made homeless, without much more than what is on their backs and made to seek out help further afield, this is called 'transfer of population or rectification of frontiers' (Ibid).
  • When people are put in prison for years without trial or shot or die in labour camps, this is called 'elimination of unreliable elements' (Ibid).

How many times have we heard euphemisms such as this since then? We've heard them for the wars, occupations, deportations, shootings, imprisonment and destruction of peoples' lives and livelihoods.

As Conor Lynch points out, the most infamous of these euphemisms is 'collateral damage' meaning in simple terms 'the killing of innocent civilians' (2016). Lynch reminds us of the  invasion of Iraq in 2003 (which we marched in protest against). This invasion was code named 'Operation Iraqi Freedom', a euphemism which sounded nothing like 'invading for oil or promoting market/ideological interest' resulting in civilian casualties of between '139,934 and 158,483' (Ibid).

As Orwell puts it:

'Political language […] is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind'
(Orwell, 1945, 2013, p. 20)

Lynch, C. (2016) Election 2016: 6 of the Most Meaningless Words that Politicians and Pundits Throw Around and Should be Banned [Online] Available at:
Orwell, G. (1945, 2013) Politics and The English Language, Penguin Books

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