Geoff Johnson: Political truth in short supply

With elections hovering ominously over the remains of truth and reality both here in Canada and later in the U.S., it is time for those of us fascinated by the power of language to turn our attention to the perils of that over used verbal slight of mouth, the euphemism.

Euphemisms, especially as employed by “those above,” have been the subject of satirists since Lewis Carroll’s scathing parody about of a young girl named Alice falling through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by absurd versions of recognizable celebrities of the mid-19th century.

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Interestingly, and appropriately, Alice in Wonderland has never been out of print since 1865, when it was first published.

Two of Carroll’s most often-quoted characters, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, are still names flung back and forth on the hustings 154 years later.

Another of Carroll’s characters, Humpty Dumpty, was and still is a term used to describe an overweight, verbally clumsy person, given to meaningless statements that are baffling to everyone except Humpty himself.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

Humpty was a master of the euphemism, that vague term that disguises an otherwise indigestible truth or is, as the saying goes, “a velvet glove enfolding reality’s iron fist.”

At its most appalling level of misuse in this past week or so, mass murderers were euphemistically referred to in the media as “shooters,” not “murderers whose insane purpose is to mindlessly kill as many people as possible in the shortest period of time.”

In the same way, although describing less drastic but no less far-reaching consequences, experienced journalists, when writing about candidates for election or even those already elected to high office, tend to prefer euphemism over reality when quoting various claims and denials.

Subsequently, euphemisms transform an obvious narcissist into a “temperamental perfectionist,” a bigot into a “traditionalist” or an unhinged demagogue into a “passionate idealist.”

When a political wannabe, or one already safely in office, tells a straight out in-your-face lie, the statement becomes “an exaggeration,” “a half-truth,” “a fib” or the currently in-vogue “Pinocchio.” Anything except an egregiously outrageous lie.

In the Wonderland of political spin, lies are no longer deliberate attempts to deceive but, euphemistically, statements that “deviate from the truth,” “equivocations” or “slip-ups” that “play fast and loose” or “trifle” with the facts or that the liar “might have misspoken.”

When it comes to euphemism-wielding prevaricators, the clear winners would be politicians who describe people who flee across a border as “illegal aliens” and “a threat to security,” unless those same politicians are employing immigrant people to tend their golf courses or resorts, at which point the “illegal aliens” become known as “undocumented workers.”

Perhaps these examples of abuse by euphemism could be considered extreme but, at a more accustomed and much more amusing level, we have all become used to second-time-around vehicles being “pre-owned,” even “pre-loved.”

Real-estate agents, struggling to find something positive to include in a house ad, will describe an older building as “ a pristine mid-century modern gem.”

A house from the 1950s will have retained “much of its original charm” while “a quaint family home with many upgrades” fairly screams “handyman special” to the reader not misled by euphemisms for “bulldozer bait.”

One apparently inaccessible gem I found was celebrated as having “ferry access to the village.”

The world of entertainment brought us Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” or a bumbling awards speaker who got it all wrong but was just “tired and emotional.”

An offensively drunk Hollywood celebrity was described by her publicist as just “intensely convivial.”

In a not-so-long-ago era, some Nixonian statements turned out to be “inoperative” after the fact-checkers had called out the lie. There were also “operative statements” that a Nixon White House press secretary used to describe any of those statements that were actually true.

A personal favourite, dating back to pre-Second World War days, was “likes his Wagner,” a more euphemistic way of describing a member of the British aristocracy who was a Hitler admirer and who thought that the Nazis were a breath of fresh air in European politics.

Come to think of it, “likes his Rachmaninoff” or “enjoys a little rice and kimchi from time to time” are euphemisms we have yet to hear from the White House — not yet, anyway. Stay tuned.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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