The form of euphemisms

Euphemisms are often thought to be individual words, yet in reality they can be of any length, ranging from individual words up to whole utterances. An example of the latter kind would be the sentence The party is over, intended to announce an imminent downturn in economic activity or on the stock market. At the phrasal level, litotes - an affirmative statement expressed by the negative of the contrary - are often used with euphemistic intentions: German kein unbetrachtlicher Betrag ‘not an inconsiderable sum’, referring to a large amount; ein nicht unerheblicher Instabilitatsfaktor ‘a not insignificant factor of instability’, referring to the accumulation of huge debts as an important cause of instability. At the word level, many other tropes can be used with euphemistic intent. Thus economic downturns are commonly referred to by metaphors such as contraction, cooling, dent, dip, or slowdown. Metonymy may be employed in order to avoid naming the person responsible for a decision directly, saying “Brussels” instead of “commissioner X”. The use of oxymoron, i.e. the combination of incongruous words, attracted mockery and criticism when economic stagnation was first called “zero growth”, but in the meantime we even swallow “negative growth” (in German, Minuswachstum) as a euphemism for recession.

Among the techniques of word formation, abbreviation seems predestined for euphemistic uses. It has become established practice to reduce words one wants to avoid to their initial letter, calling, for example, recession the “R-word”. Further examples of this naming strategy are “D-word” (deflation), “I-word” (inflation), or “s-word” (sell, on the stock market) (cf. Resche 2013: 235). Acronyms fulfil a similar purpose, as when French SDF, shorthand for sans domicile fixe ‘homeless’, or English “UHNWI”, shorthand for “Ultra High Net Worth Individual”, are used to refer to the two extremes of the “social ladder”. Note, however, that these two euphemisms are used in quite different contexts: while SDF reflects the unease of civil servants and society at large, UHNWI is confined to the jargon of private bankers, probably in an attempt to avoid the negative connotations of super-rich.

Last but not least, the use of words of foreign origin or technical terms has always been an effective strategy for mitigating the impact of unpleasant concepts. In German, Anglicisms often fulfil euphemistic functions: when during the current crisis taxpayers were confronted with the grim perspective of having to pay enormous sums to rescue banks “too big to fail”, politicians and members of regulatory bodies resorted to English words such as “haircut”, “bailout” or “bad bank”. Technical terms may perform the same task since their precise meaning is not understood by the general public: when the Federal Reserve created vast amounts of money in order to purchase government bonds, the action was dubbed “quantitative easing”.

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