Bad Words

Having re-read Kyle Erickson’s post on language and finally gotten to Stephen Fry’s entry on the subject, I’ve belatedly realized there’s something of a distinction between the natural evolution of a word’s meaning and imposing a new terminology to obscure comprehension. So, for example, if the American public gradually replaced the word “torture” with the phrase “really fuck somebody up,” I can’t say I’d complain because the latter’s meaning would be exactly analogous to our current understanding of what constitutes illegal detainee treatment. The terminology may have changed, but the transition doesn’t obscure the words’ descriptive force (if anything, it enhances it).

The danger of bullshit euphemisms is that they actively obscure meaning. Common usage can’t afford to beat around the bush because most people rely on language to accurately convey concepts and observations, whereas euphemisms are intended to disfigure our understanding of reality. So when some odious Bush Administration spokesperson mouths the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” in place of the word “torture,” the effect is to fundamentally shift our perception of what’s being done to detainees. This, of course, isn’t an organic cultural transition towards a more popular or aesthetically pleasing or powerful term of art. It’s a deliberate attempt on the part of a few bad people to prevent the public from understanding exactly what’s going on.

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5 Comments

Filed under Culture

5 responses to “Bad Words

  1. This is brilliant, and I can’t wait to link to it. I’ve been less eloquently writing (ranting?) about the obfuscation of bureaucratic language over on my blog, and I’m happy to find a co-commiserator.

    Given our shared interest, you might appreciate this piece that tries to refocus the debate on the definition of torture by looking at something that sounds really simple: what it is, literally, that happens to a body, and why, medically, we think that it’s torture. It’s a piece of mine, full and bashful disclosure, but it’s remarkably apropos to what you’ve just posted:

    Reading the Wounds

  2. Pingback: On torture, from around the blogosphere « To Africa, from New York…

  3. Thanks jina, I’ll be sure to take a look.

  4. Pingback: Light Reading «

  5. Thanks for the blog post on the article; very much appreciated.

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