Tuesday, March 20th, 2018...10:14 pm

He’s Not Dead… He’s Resting!: Political Euphemisms and What To Do With Them

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Stephanie Ruiz

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While Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot Sketch” exploits the potential for humour in euphemistic language, it also signals the potential for euphemisms to blur the perception of reality. When the client attempts to return a dead parrot, the pet shop owner uses the euphemism for death “to be at rest” hoping to confuse his client or expecting he interprets it literally. Both characters and the audience know the parrot is dead, so by using euphemisms to hide the obvious, the owner reaches the limits of absurdity. Thus, it illuminates that euphemisms play an important role in the negotiation of perceived reality.

Just as customer and owner negotiate the terms of reality through language and euphemisms in the sketch, so politicians negotiate the meanings or relevance of political actions with the public through political euphemisms. In 2009, the Obama administration renamed the Global War on Terror, introduced by the Bush administration, with the name “Overseas Contingency Operation” (Wilson and Kamen). One of the two functions of political euphemisms, according to Zhao and Dong, is the “Persuasive Function,” which replaces the signified’s associations with vague, less negative connotations (Zhao and Dong 120). In the name Overseas Contingency Operation, the signifier “Overseas” obscures the immediacy of the War on Terror by conceptualizing it as external or foreign to the United States. Thus, the euphemism “Overseas” suggests to US audiences that the political actions taken under the Overseas Contingency Operation do not affect them directly or are not a major concern for them because those actions take place outside US borders. This euphemism hinders people’s engagement with issues of foreign policy concerning warfare. Political euphemisms also have the potential to “[plant] illusive concepts into people’s minds and [change] them into” more acceptable facts (Zhao and Dong 120). For example, the same obscuring process applies to the rest of the name but targets specific images associated with the unpleasant consequences of war: deaths, horror, and economic costs. Therefore, by constructing the issue of War on Terror as external and not so gruesome, its new name diminishes the intellectual and emotional involvement of US audiences with it.

Political language relies on euphemisms to obscure the connection between intention and action so regularly that politicians already expect the language they employ in their public speeches to disguise their true intentions or the direct connection between their words and actions. In December of 2016, a headline for Los Angeles Times reads, “Donald Trump says he never really meant to promise that Carrier jobs would return,” then the article quotes Trump excusing himself by saying his so-called promise “was a euphemism” (Bierman). The Oxford English Dictionary defines euphemism as “a less distasteful word or phrase used as a substitute for something harsher or more offensive” (OED s.v. euphemism, n. sense 2). This definition indicates that using the word “Carrier” to represent all factories is not, in fact, a euphemism, as Trump claims. Using “Carrier” to represent factories in general more closely resembles the meaning of synecdoche, not euphemism. In this instance, not only the public learns that Trump ignores the meaning of euphemism, but audiences see the intended purpose of political euphemisms unveiled. For Trump exposes his intention to separate the meaning of his words from his intended actions by using a euphemism, which he expects will obscure the relationship between words, meaning, and intention. The other function of political euphemisms is the “Disguising and Deceptive Function,” which allows politicians “to control the quantity and quality of information transmission” (Zhao and Dong 120). Although Trump fails to identify a euphemism, his intention exemplifies that political euphemisms are intended to influence people and mask specific meaning. In addition, he shifts the responsibility of miscommunication towards the public by implying they misunderstand his words.

In the absence of political euphemisms, the language employed by politicians to defend many of their actions would consist of “arguments which are too brutal for people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties” (Orwell). Thus, the power of political euphemisms relies on their potential to influence public opinion and facilitate public consent by concealing the unpleasant implications of political actions. Nevertheless, people’s awareness of the social functions of political euphemisms can challenge the disguising and persuasive effects of political euphemisms by actively recalling to mind the unpleasant associations obscured by euphemisms.

While Orwell identifies the problematic function of euphemisms in politics, the Monty Python sketch identifies euphemisms as a potential location to negotiate and claim back power over language. One can resist manipulation, as Monty Python’s character does, by becoming aware of the hidden implications of euphemisms and bring them back to our minds. One may not be able to force politicians to use specific, direct, and honest language; however, as George Orwell says, “one can at least change one’s own habits” and throw deceiving language “into the dustbin.”

Works Cited

Bierman, Noah. “Donald Trump says he never really meant to promise that carrier jobs would return.” Los Angeles Times, 01 December, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/trailguide/la-na-trailguide-updates-donald-trump-said-he-never-really-meant-1480626014-htmlstory.html. Accessed November 15, 2017.

Monty Python. “Dead Parrot.” YouTube, uploaded by Chadner, 14 February 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vuW6tQ0218.

[OED]. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/65021?redirectedFrom=euphemism#eid. Accessed 1 November 2017.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” First published in Horizon, April 1946, http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/. Accessed January 6, 2018.

Wilson, Scott, and Al Kamen. “‘Global War on Terror’ Is Given a New Name.” The Washington Post, 25 March 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/24/AR2009032402818.html. Accessed 01 December, 2017.

Zhao, Xiaonan and Jingping Dong. “Study on the Features of English Political Euphemism and its Social Functions.” English Language Teaching, vol. 3, no. 1, March 2010, DOI: 10.5539/elt.v3n1p118. Accessed November 15, 2017.

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