Some words designed to delude
The shady art of the euphemism has been used to veil body parts and deceive investors
By Diane Dietz
Published: Monday, Sep 26, 201
When the stock market takes a tumble, as it does on a regular basis these days, the experts on Wall Street call it a “correction.”
The word sounds as benign as what a second-grade teacher does to a student’s homework, said Ralph Keyes, author of “Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms.”
The term “market correction” doesn’t hint that millions have lost money that they expected to see them through retirement — most especially in fall 2008, when the market lost 18 percent of its value in a single week.
“Collapsing,” Keyes said. “The market is not correcting; it’s collapsing.”
But euphemisms such as “market correction” are what people use in the place of scarier words, Keyes said Sunday in a speech at the Eugene Public Library held in honor of Banned Book Week.
“Think of them as comfort words,” he said. “We use these euphemisms in place of terms that make us uneasy.
“What makes us uneasy changes with time.”
The euphemisms of any era will indicate what people of that time were most concerned about, he said. In the past, euphemisms for body parts and body functions were rife.
Winston Churchill was at a dinner party in Virginia, for example, where the hostess asked what part of the chicken he would care to eat.
Churchill asked for some “breast,” Keyes recounted.
A woman sitting next to him reprimanded the British prime minister for using such an offensive term, saying that what he should have asked for was “white meat.”
“The next day Churchill sent this woman a corsage with the message: ‘Pin this on your white meat,’” Keyes said.
In the days of ancient Rome, the word for the male sex organ was so shocking that citizens used the euphemism “penis,” a word from Latin that meant “small tail,” according to Keyes’ book.
In the centuries since, penis became the risque word that inspired a whole lexicon of euphemisms.
But as the world changes, so do the euphemisms. Today, economics has spawned a fresh run of euphemisms.
Nobody has problems anymore — they have “issues,” Keyes said.
“Toward the end of his term in office, George W. Bush said the economy was having some issues. Boy, did it ever,” Keyes said.
At its start, pundits referred to the recession as a “softening,” he said.
“When the stock market began to plummet, it was called an ‘equity retreat,’ ” he said.
Financiers used the word “subprime” to describe a bad loan.
The worldwide financial problems were caused in part by people who borrowed against their homes or took out second mortgages.
That sounds bad, Keyes said, so bankers called it “accessing home equity” or putting your “assets to work.”
“It sounds like discovering diamonds in your backyard, and was treated this way by millions of homeowners and bankers offering loans to help them ‘leverage their assets,’ ” he said.
“When these loans were sliced up like so much salami and bundled into ‘collateralized debt obligations,’ they were said to be ‘securitized.’
“This has a reassuring sound. Something that’s securitized is secure, right? Wrong.”
Keyes said it’s not a stretch to suggest that euphemistic language helped the financial shenanigans of recent years to go on undetected.
“Tortured, euphemistic prose doesn’t just conceal problems,” he said. “It promotes the sort of muddled, evasive thinking that led to those problems in the first place.”
Community leaders will read out loud from banned books in an annual celebration of freedom of speech. Springfield Mayor Christine Lundberg is expected to turn the first page.
When and where: 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Springfield Public Library, 225 Fifth St.
The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA