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Weasel Words

by Peter Donnelly

We all like to have a chuckle at the euphemisms invented by bureaucrats, public relations officers, and assorted hand-wringers—terms like animal companions for pets and challenged for handicapped. But what is more disturbing is the way euphemisms and perverted meanings creep into the popular language and choke off the truth about things—largely through the influence of journalists who are too pusillanimous to question the official verbiage that is fed to them.

I got to thinking about this during the holiday season, which used to be called Christmas time. I suppose advertisers can’t be blamed for wanting to include everyone in the annual spending spree, while public officials are eager not to offend anyone by suggesting a preference for Christian observances. But a curious thing has happened in recent years. Not only have terms like holiday shopping and happy holidays become ubiquitous, but even in places where Christmas is the only appropriate term, it has either been replaced or suppressed, as for example in the nonsense phrases holiday tree and holiday carol. I have even seen a TV commercial that featured December 25 circled on a calendar and then referred to a “countdown to the holidays.” But CNN takes the prize for this marquee headline: “Pope Delivers Message on Meaning of Holiday.” It seems that in our eagerness to be inclusive of all cultures, we have decided to exclude (at least publicly) any direct reference to a feast day that is an important part of the culture of a majority of North Americans.

At least this example might be understandable as an attempt to avoid giving offense. What I find far less forgivable is the deliberate or reckless perversion of meaning, and the careless discarding of words that are clear and truthful in favour of those that obfuscate and deceive—otherwise known as weasel words. A few examples follow.

abuse

“A federal police spokesman said it was unclear whether [Natascha] Kampusch ... had been abused by the 44-year-old man believed to have kidnapped her.” What does CNN think abuse means? For heaven’s sake, the girl/woman had been confined in a small room for eight years. Isn’t that enough to constitute abuse? Later the BBC reported: “She has never revealed whether her kidnapper forced her into any sort of relationship.” Evidently they meant “sexual relations,” since it is clear that the man did force her into a relationship of some sort, if only of captor and captive. See also sexual assault.

advisory

At some point in the last 50 years or so, someone decided that advisory should be turned into a noun with the meaning of bulletin. In the U.S., what used to be called a small-craft warning is now called a small-craft advisory. That usage can perhaps be justified: the weather service is simply advising that it might get rough out there, not warning that it’s unsafe to take out a small craft at all. Inevitably, however, advisory has become a simple euphemism, perhaps suggesting that there is less potential danger. Thus the CBC reports: “About a million people who have been under a boil-water advisory in Greater Vancouver for 12 days have finally been told it’s safe to drink from the taps.” Surely the danger of being poisoned merits a full-scale warning, not a bit of friendly advice.

correctional centre

Of course, there’s a long history of coining euphemisms for prisons or jails, the euphemisms going hand in hand with what the authorities of the time thought they were accomplishing. Back when it was thought you could force convicts to repent their sins, prisons were called penitentiaries. Now the system is evidently driven by the theory that behaviour can be corrected, so we have (at least in Canada) correctional centres. (See also The Centre Centre.) Never mind that little or nothing is done to rehabilitate the inmates; at least the word conveys some noble purpose. The same can’t be said for institution, as in Edmonton Institution, which you might take for some establishment for research or higher learning, like the Smithsonian, if you did not know it was a maximum-security prison.

For short-term stays, in Canada and abroad, detention centre is now the preferred term; and of course people are detained, not imprisoned.

defence

Okay, I understand that no nation wants to be seen as an aggressor, so armies have been replaced by defence forces and the War Department has become the Department of Defence. But government euphemisms are one thing and truth in journalism is another, so it bothers me when I see a reporter stand up in front of the camera in the occupied West Bank and say the area has been taken over by Israeli “defence forces.” If the Israelis are the defenders, then the Palestinians are the aggressors—and the reporters are taking sides.

euthanize

In justifying the award of workers’ compensation to a man who had culled a pack of sled dogs by shooting them “execution-style” (whatever that means), an official wrote: “The size of the cull meant he had no choice but to euthanize the dogs in full view of other dogs slated to be euthanized.” Pretty much everyone commenting on the case in the media used the same word.

Merriam-Webster defines euthanasia as “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.” Etymologically speaking, euthanizing persons or animals means giving them a “good death,” i.e. a better one than they would have if we let nature take its course. The mere slaughter of an animal for our own purposes, no matter how humanely done, is not euthanasia.

Thus when the director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management states that “we do not endorse the euthanasia of healthy horses,” he is stating a position on something that is semantically impossible. Mind you, this probably doesn't bother an agency that claims to conduct gathers of wild horses and burros rather than roundups.

excited delirium

Despite widespread ridicule, this term is still being used to describe the cause of in-custody deaths; for example, on November 20, 2009, the CBC reported that “The death of a man who was stunned with a Taser several times during his arrest two years ago in Chilliwack was not the fault of police actions, a coroner’s inquest has determined... [The coroner concludes that the man] died from acute ecstasy intoxication and excited delirium.”

Now I am not suggesting that there is police wrongdoing whenever someone dies while being arrested, or that all police act with the callous indifference to human life shown by the RCMP Brute Squad in the Dziekanski case. However, calling excited delirium the cause of death, as if the Tasers and batons had nothing to do with it, is misleading at best. In fact, “he died from excited delirium” seems to mean “he was out of control, so he had to be killed.”

frustrated

In a news report of a road-rage incident we read: “Visibly frustrated, the two riders started to yell, tailgate, and flash their high beams.” Similarly, a television personality “struck a photographer with his car to ‘vent his frustration’ at being followed for pictures.” A headline reads: “ ‘Frustrated’ father shook crying baby, police say.”

Frustrated does not mean angry or vexed, and frustration does not mean impatience or rage, although one may be led to these emotions through being frustrated (balked) in an endeavor, as a “frustrated child” may have a temper tantrum over not having, or not knowing, what he wants. For adults, the wider usage is pernicious because frustration is really something beyond your control—something that happens to you. Attributing your wrong actions to frustration is along the lines of saying “the devil made me do it.”

graphic

It‘s striking how far the meaning of graphic has strayed from its sense of “vividly or plainly shown or described“ (Merriam-Webster), as in warnings about “graphic scenes” and “graphic violence” in television programs and computer games. It is now used to describe any content that might disturb or offend, including profanity (“graphic language”) and sexuality or even simple nudity. We are warned about “graphic images,” as if there were any other kind.

In its journey into the realm of euphemism, the word has taken a leap across the boundary between representation and reality. An editorial note prefacing a news story says: “The details of the rape and murder...are shocking and horrifying. In today's coverage...we have not included some of the most graphic details.” According to another story, “Two or three people broke into the home and beat two men with a weapon ‘pretty badly’ and demanded money, police said.... [An RCMP spokesman] said they're aware such graphic violence has concerned village residents.”

It hardly needs to be said that graphic does not mean anything like sordid, extreme, or brutal, and has no place in the description of real events.

Something similar has happened to the word explicit, which began being used with its original meaning in phrases such as explicit sexual images, suggesting that nothing was left to the imagination. From there it became a euphemism for pornographic or obscene in warnings about “explicit content.” The terms of service for Evernote, a cloud-based notes application, forbid the uploading of any material that “contains nudity, sexually graphic material, or material that is otherwise deemed explicit by Evernote.” Taken literally, this would suggest that all uploads must be in code; but here the word seems to encompass anything that the censors find objectionable.

inappropriate

In a judicial report that the media characterized as “scathing,” the actions of a former Canadian prime minister who took cash under the table were deemed “inappropriate.” At around the same time, a military officer was relieved of his command because of allegations that he had engaged in “inappropriate” sexual intimacy in a theater of war—with a subordinate, as was later revealed. An Alberta judge, in finding a woman guilty of manslaughter, said that her decision to strangle her daughter with a scarf was “inappropriate and troublesome.” Commenting on a report of a motorcycle travelling at 300 km/h, a police spokesman said: “I cannot use enough adjectives to describe how inappropriate this is.”

Inappropriate is singing “Ave Maria” at a bar mitzvah. Conduct that violates ethical guidelines or regulations is improper. Deliberately strangling someone is criminal, although the judge in this case doesn't seem to have thought so, since he did not impose any jail time. As for the policeman’s search for adjectives, I can only suggest that “inappropriate” is a bad start.

international

Some time ago the words foreign and foreigner were banned from North American journalism, perhaps on the grounds that they had acquired some taint of prejudice. (Indeed, Ted Turner boasts of having banned the terms from CNN because, in his view, they promoted an “us-vs.-them attitude.”) The word international has filled the gap, so we now have international news in our newspapers, international students studying at our universities, and so on. But how can a word that means “existing or carried on between different nations” (Concise Oxford Dictionary) also mean “foreign to one’s own nation”? For example, do you elect to study Japanese as your international language, when Japanese is in fact anything but international?

interview

A battlefield detainee (prisoner of war) in Afghanistan was reported to have been handed over to American troops so that he could be interviewed. Prisoners are no longer subject to interrogation, a one-sided process that might involve bright lights and other coercive measures or enhanced techniques, i.e. torture. They now enjoy the friendly, mutual exchange that takes place in an interview.

a male, a female

Have you ever noticed that the police almost never use the words man and woman? Here’s an extract from a typical press release: “Upon arrival officers were confronted by a 34 year old male who was armed with a knife. This confrontation escalated to the point where the male was shot by police. The male was rushed to hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.” A male what—orangutan? I believe that what is going on here, consciously or unconsciously, is dehumanization. It’s akin to the controversy some years back about the word squaw, where most people got caught up in the etymology of the word and lost sight of the real issue: that an adult female person, of whatever race, is a woman.

Incidentally, the same media who parrot the police use of female as a noun seem strangely reluctant to use the word as an adjective when applied to a class of person. You are far more likely to hear about women teachers, for example, than about female teachers, even though something like men teachers is seldom seen.

Finally, though it doesn’t really belong on this page, could we please get beyond saying things like John is a male nurse and Fred was a male model?

Middle East

Once upon a time there were the Near East, the Middle East, and the Far East. Now there’s only a Middle East, and the term is almost exclusively used to describe a very small part of what used to be the Near East. The phrase has probably escaped the general purge of Eurocentric terms like Orient and Far East because it is a convenient way for journalists to refer to Israel and Palestine without going anywhere near the thorny issue of who is entitled to what piece of western Asia. Just the same it seems a strange perversion of the language. Just what East are Israel and Palestine in the middle of, anyway?

potential danger

[Risk of Danger]

Danger is the potential for harm (or, as we would hear more often today, negative impact), so putting potential in front of it does nothing except weaken the word. The same goes for similar words such as risk, hazard, threat, and peril. For example, The Guardian says that the punishment of an unsuccessful North Korean football team “highlights the potential perils of representing a dictatorship at professional sport.” The online Oxford dictionary is also guilty of redundancy when it defines careful as “making sure of avoiding potential danger.” Even worse, dictionary.com cites as a usage example “a potential danger to safety”—in other words, something unsafe.

I’ve seen it argued that a suspicious package can be described as potentially dangerous because it might turn out, on investigation, to be harmless. But in a better world, potentially would be reserved for the ability to develop into a condition, while possibly would mean the condition might or might not turn out to exist, but in the meantime we just don’t know. An egg, for example, is potentially male or female until it is fertilized, at which point it becomes possibly male and possibly female.

Potential as an adjective is more and more often being used to make unnecessary qualifications. “Patients have been told they can have a screening done to check for potential blood-borne viral infections that might have been caused by the dirty scopes.” The screening would surely check for infections, not for the potential of infection.

I pity the judge who ever has to interpret this bit of the Washington State code: “no person shall drive a vehicle on a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing.” Does this mean you have to slow down if it might start snowing? And how can something be potential and existing at the same time?

relatively

This isn’t a euphemism, but it qualifies as a weasel word because it is used to weaken the sense of other words. The trouble is, most of the adjectives or adverbs it commonly modifies are already at least implicitly comparative. Does relatively add any information to “There were relatively few people on the streets that day,” or “Fred is relatively tall”? We seem to be afraid that without the qualifier, we will be taken to mean that the streets were empty, or that Fred’s height is over nine feet, when in fact we mean only that the streets were unusually quiet, and that Fred is taller than the average. Once you start noticing this usage you will see it everywhere, even in the best writing. One particularly egregious example, from the BBC, will suffice: “The numbers of infections identified in older age groups are still relatively small compared to [those in] younger people.”

round-nose shovel

Despite the well-known admonition to call a spade a spade, hardware stores and manufacturers now call it a round-nose shovel. This circumlocution may have come about partly because our urban society doesn’t know the difference between a spade (a tool for digging, usually but not always with a pointy edge) and a shovel (a tool for scooping). But the bigger reason is no doubt the fear of being perceived as using a racial slur. Now, we can always make do without a seldom-used word like niggardly, which is susceptible to misunderstanding, as
a certain official found out at the cost of his job. But really, isn’t it silly to ban an ancient, homely, and useful word simply because it is cognate to a short-lived racial epithet? What’s next on the list, spick and span and doo-wop? For that matter, what about the suit of cards, which is the origin of the word used as a slur?

sex-trade worker

I wasn't going to go anywhere near this term, which has acquired PC status in Canadian journalism and elsewhere, until I saw an account of a murder trial where the prosecutor pointed out that the accused had made an obscene display of his dead victim “as a sex-trade worker.” Similarly, an Amnesty International site complains that “some of the people involved in the investigation and prosecution of [a murder case] saw [the victim] as a sex-trade worker, not a human being.” Surely the whole point in both these instances was that the victim was viewed with contempt, as a whore, not as a productive worker in a respectable trade. If we use the euphemism to stand for a slur, in a few years we’re going to have to come up with a new one.

I have two further objections to the term. One is that I just don't see the problem with prostitute, a neutral word with a well understood and precise meaning. The second is that the guild of sex-trade workers must surely include procurers as well, but I see no movement to grant equal respectability to pimps and madams. For that matter, those who purchase sex are still reviled as johns instead of being given due respect as sex-trade customers.

sexual assault

Some years ago the word rape went into decline because it was at last recognized that there are forms of sexual assault that do not include intercourse. The trouble is that sexual assault is now often used as code for rape, with the result that we are right back where we started. Citing a press release, the CBC reported: “The attack took place after a man entered the lab, approached the victim, tied her hands behind her back, and beat her unconscious. The assailant removed her clothing, and then sexually assaulted her.” Apart from the absurdity of suggesting that no attack took place until after the victim had been beaten, surely it became sexual assault as soon as the man removed her clothes. Reporting another vicious rape (though he didn’t use this word), a TV reporter from the same network said that “the victim was severely beaten in the face, and then the assault occurred.”

The ambiguity of the term is highlighted by stories about attempted sexual assault, such as this: “Police are investigating another attempted sexual assault... Authorities say [a man] punched the victim in the face and knocked her down. At that point, he tried to pull down her pants while he was punching her.” That sounds like an actual sexual assault to me, regardless of the attacker's ultimate intentions.

And here’s a headline from the CBC web site: “Wisconsin man convicted of sexually assaulting dead deer gets more jail time.” The man may have practised bestiality, or necrophilia, or some other perverted act, but I don’t think he can have been guilty of any kind of assault, since the animal was already dead. (The state of Wisconsin does have its problems with the definition of sexual assault, as illustrated by another disturbing case.)

suspect

I don’t know whether to put this one down to excessive caution or just sloppiness. Suspect used to be the word for an identifiable person who was accused of, or at least under suspicion for, a crime. Law enforcement officers and journalists found the word handy for avoiding libel actions brought by suspects who turned out to be innocent. But now the word is also used to refer to the person, whether identified or not, who actually committed the crime. Maybe culprit sounds old-fashioned, and maybe perpetrator is too big a word for newscasters or the hosts of reality TV shows, but surely it’s nonsense to say “The suspect then pulled out a shotgun and blew the victim’s head off,” or “Watch as the suspect drives the stolen Hummer through a crowd of schoolchildren.” In fact, it’s worse than nonsense, because it undermines the useful, non-judgmental meaning of the word suspect.

In crime reporting it is frequently stated that “police are looking for a suspect.” One would expect this to mean that they have identified someone they want to arrest and are trying to find that person. But more often the context reveals that it means they are looking for someone, anyone, whom they can identify as a suspect in the case.

It has been pointed out to me that when a newspaper reports on a “sexual assault in which the suspects wore masks,” it cannot use the word culprits because the incident is only alleged to have occurred, and occasionally those who claim to be the victims of such crimes do recant. I can see the point, but I’m not comforted. In this case suspect is being overloaded with a meaning something like person who may or may not exist, and who, if the former, may have committed a crime.

Some similar thought process seems to have led an RCMP spokesman to refer to an officer under investigation for assault as “the alleged suspect.” In his mind, calling the man a suspect would have been to acknowledge that a crime had been committed.

When they actually have a suspect, many police now prefer to use the term person of interest, which is suitably vague: such a person might be the perp, or only someone who might have information. But apparently it’s not vague enough for the police who penned the following in an application for a search warrant that enabled them to ransack a man’s home for several days: “[He] was identified very early in this investigation as a potential person of interest.” In the writer’s mind, person of interest must have meant culprit, so the qualifier had to be added to make it mean suspect.

See also Stop Saying That!