Small Lies are the Lubricant of Civilisation

The Economist has a priceless article on euphemisms, which correctly cites the British as masters of the craft:

British newspaper obituaries are a rich seam: nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, yet many enjoy a hint of the truth about the person who has “passed away”. A drunkard will be described as “convivial” or “cheery”. Unbearably garrulous is “sociable” or the dread “ebullient”; “lively wit” means a penchant for telling cruel and unfunny stories. “Austere” and “reserved” mean joyless and depressed. Someone with a foul temper “did not suffer fools gladly”. The priapic will have “enjoyed female company”; nymphomania is “notable vivacity”. Uncontrollable appetites of all sorts may earn the ultimate accolade: “He lived life to the full.”…[Others euphemisms include] “a confirmed bachelor” (a homosexual) and “burdened by occasional irregularities in his private life” (leaving the reader guessing whether the problem was indecent exposure, adultery or cross-dressing).

Among my British favorites is “bless him”, meaning that he’s an idiot. “After we introduced some complex new accounting software here at the firm we felt that Roger, bless him, should pursue other opportunities better suited to his abilities”.

And I love the way investigations of obviously guilty criminal suspects are described by British newsreaders, e.g., “100,000 pounds have gone missing from the Birmingham Central Bank. A man was seen leaving the bank carrying a large bag with the words ‘Birmingham Central Bank’ printed on it, in which there were 100,000 pounds. The man is now assisting police with their inquiry”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “Small Lies are the Lubricant of Civilisation”

  1. From the article in the Economist: “American euphemisms are in a class of their own, principally because they seem to involve words that few would find offensive to start with, replaced by phrases that are meaninglessly ambiguous: bathroom tissue for lavatory paper, dental appliances for false teeth, previously owned rather than used, wellness centres for hospitals, which conduct procedures not operations.”

    The author seems to be confusing advertising speech with human speech. Perhaps he’s never been to the U.S. and has encountered only ads. The real giveaway of his ignorance is “lavatory paper” instead of “toilet paper.” With respect to all the other pairings, real people in the U.S. use the ones he says that we don’t.

    This does raise the question of why advertisers in the U.S. use euphemisms. Will a previously owned car really sell more quickly than a used one?

    1. Your post reminds me of the time I was inquiring about a house trailer. Every time I called it a trailer the salesman would correct me saying “Mobil home.” It still amuses me thirtysome years later.

      But to your question: This seems to be the “language framing” so much discussed lately. From “Obama Care” to “Death Tax” some highly paid experts think it makes a big difference. Does it really matter what pops up when we google “Santorum”? Maybe. But it is as funny as “mobile home” at least.

  2. Texans use the phrase “bless his/her heart” to prepare the listener for an upcoming slam. Using the “bless his/her heart” prefix absolves the speaker of malice and allows such phrases as: “Rick Perry, bless his heart, hasn’t got the sense God gave a slug.”

    1. Often the insulting phrase is simply omitted altogether and yet still understood. “Rick Perry is going to be debating tomorrow.” “Oh, bless his heart.”

    1. James: With the greatest respect (euphemism alert), to identify the reason that a culture adopts a euphemism does not change the fact that the culture has a euphemism.

  3. I once called a grocery store and asked for the fish department. “Oh,” came the response, “you mean the seafood shop.”

  4. In English, and American, law, one cannot defame the dead, so obituaries have less need of euphemisms than articles about live people – who can in any event plead innuendo, i.e. everybody (or some legally significant numbers of people) understood the ‘real’ message in the purportedly inoffensive expression. Few if any of the euphemisms mentioned in this thread so far involve allegations of criminal behaviour that could involve either contempt of court or libel.

    One finds in my children’s vocabulary (they are about 20) a tendency to say ‘no offence’ before some quite offensive statement, as if disclaiming the intention to offend changes the character of the statement. I prefer the ‘bless his heart’ version mentioned above…

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