The euphemisms that we use tell the story of our times. Back in the 1960s the descriptor used for those who offered contraception services was “Family Planning” – the suggestion being that what we were up to at the time was planning a family – probably the last thing that hormonally charged teenagers wanted to do. But then the great Marie Stopes had to call her book about sex “Married Love” back in 1918 – if she had called it “How to have great sex” it probably wouldn’t have been published! Much uglier was the euphemism “Collateral Damage” first heard at the time of Vietnam War to describe the “accidental” killing of civilians. We have moved on a bit from this – for example when the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) was criticised for the civilian deaths in Gaza they said “The IDF expresses regret at any harm to uninvolved civilians” – although whether “harm” accurately and adequately describes the deaths of countless hundred of innocent women and children one might question. More military euphemism at work.

Good writing and good verbal communication avoids euphemism entirely. Our loved ones “die”, they don’t “pass away”. Our overweight cousin Cindy is “fat” not a lady of “ample proportions”. When public figures tell us untruths they “lie” – they are not being “economical with the truth”. When we have a bit of “hankie pankie” we don’t (always) “sleep with” the other participant(s) – if we did we might miss the bus home! And the rooms where we urinate or defecate rarely have baths in them – nor cloaks either.

We use euphemisms to avoid offence, to cover our embarrassment or – increasingly – to try and minimise the sound of a difficulty. So we do everything we can to avoid using the word “problem” or even the word “difficulty” itself. So a problem becomes an “issue” or a “challenge”. “Do you have an issue with that?” we say meaning “Is there a problem?” And the problem of getting the economy on track again becomes a “challenge” and rarely is it actually described as a “problem”. In his 2217 word inaugural address President Obama did not use the word “problem” once and the word “difficulty” only occurred in a rhetorical flourish near the end firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”  The President did however have two “challenges”: Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real.” And Our challenges may be new.” If you substitute the word “problems” for “challenges” you do get closer to what Obama was trying to tell us – but maybe to suggest that there are “problems” suggests that we don’t know what to do – whereas a “challenge” is often something to relish.

Of course none of these euphemistic constructions is grammatically incorrect – least of all President Obama’s. But the language is moving ever so imperceptibly to a much greater blandness and lack of precision. “Challenge” is a handy word because it is not necessarily negative in its connotation. Indeed traditionally challenges were often observed when someone voluntarily decided to do something – climb Everest for example – because he relished the “challenge”. Today we shy away from admitting problems exist in case someone is frightened at the thought – so every “problem” becomes a much more positive-sounding “challenge” which suggests that we will actually, like climbing Everest, welcome the difficulties that the challenge will offer and relish overcoming them. Anyone got an issue with that?


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