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Euphemism

Terminological preliminaries

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the term euphemism refers to “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant” as well as to “the expression so substituted”. In the German tradition of studies on rhetoric, it is customary to distinguish two fundamental kinds of euphemism, called verhillend and verschleiernd (cf. Dietl 1996: 1), translated by Burckhard (2009: 356) as “veiling” and “concealing”, respectively. The “veiling” subtype closely corresponds to the definition provided by Merriam- Webster, denoting an expression - mostly from the semantic areas of religion, death, disease, handicap, sexuality, excretion, etc. - that is avoided because it is taboo in the speech community. The “concealing” subtype, by contrast, refers to euphemisms that are used purposefully by a speaker in order to influence or, in extreme cases, manipulate the hearer. While the bulk of traditional linguistic studies on euphemism were devoted to the “veiling” kind, this latter type, as we will see, is the more relevant for the study of the language of economics and business.

Furthermore, traditional studies often focus on the role of euphemisms in semantic change: euphemisms, in fact, tend to lose their “veiling” or “concealing” function over time and can eventually acquire the meaning of the expression which they were intended to avoid. This kind of semantic change, however, seems to have been relatively rare in the realm of economics and business (Latin usura, which originally simply meant ‘use’ but ended up with the meaning ‘usury’, would be one of these rare examples). For the study of economics and business language, it is more relevant to gain a precise understanding of the nature of those communicative acts in which euphemisms are embedded. Of paramount importance in this respect are: the societal context of the utterance; the state of knowledge of both speaker and hearer(s); the general communicative habits prevailing in the speech community (e.g., with respect to “political correctness”); and, last but not least, the intentions of the speaker. Bak (2012:135), furthermore, draws attention to the fact that euphemisms are often addressed not to a single recipient but to a broader audience, which means that a plurality of possible interpretations must also be taken into account.

Despite the importance of euphemistic communication in the language of economics and business, the topic does not seem to have attracted much scholarly attention. In an early contribution, Devoto (1939:116) pointed out the abundant use of euphemisms in stock-market reports, especially with respect to downward movements, or in referring to the rise of inflation (e.g., Italian I’affiorare dell’elemento monetario ‘the emergence of the monetary element’). More recently, the subject has been sadly neglected, with larger-scale studies on euphemism-prone genres from the realm of banking or insurance apparently missing altogether. Apart from my own contributions to the subject (cf. Fischer 2007, 2015), I only know of one recent book (Bak 2012) and one section of another (Resche 2013: 226-242) devoted specifically to the use of euphemisms in economics and business. Resche adopts a terminological perspective and concentrates on English, while Bak’s study falls within the ambit of “anthropocentric linguistics”. Based on an analysis of 1,500 newspaper articles published in the German business press between 2007 and 2011, its originality lies in the focus it places on the recipient, the interpreter of euphemistic utterances. On the basis of a survey conducted among 280 professionals with a business background, Bak demonstrates that the interpretation of such utterances varies considerably from recipient to recipient, and that the two functions of “veiling” and “concealing” do not constitute clearly distinct categories.

 
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