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The functions of euphemisms

The reason for the ubiquity of euphemism in the language of economics and business lies in the fact that economic life is rife with situations where divergent interests have to be overcome: between buyers and sellers, employers and employees, savers and bankers, insurers and the insured, or politicians and taxpayers, to mention just a few. In such situations, the use of euphemisms can be a means to overcoming differences or at least getting along better. Each of these constellations would merit an in-depth inquiry on its own. In the absence of such large-scale inquiries, the following remarks must remain of a purely illustrative nature. They are structured on the basis of the distinction, already mentioned in Section 4.1, between the functions of “veiling” and “concealing”, with the proviso that the two are neither mutually exclusive nor always easy to distinguish in specific instances.

The “veiling” function is certainly less important in economics and business than in other areas of life, but it is not completely absent, finding ample use in advertisements for taboo-laden products. In the workplace, hierarchical relationships are the source of much euphemistic talk: employees will normally be addressed by their superiors as “collaborators” or “colleagues”, not as “subordinates”, “inferiors” or “underlings”. Yet another area prone to “veiling” is the labour market, especially all facets related to unemployment. German Minijob, for example, is an official euphemism for a kind of precarious employment (a job paid less than 450 Euros). The concept of firing has sparked off a whole series of euphemisms in different languages, among them English make redundant, German freisetzen, literally ‘to set free’, or French remercier, literally ‘to thank’. The language of social security is another hotspot of “veiling”, where the “paupers” of the 19th century have become “customers” towards the end of the 20th century (cf. Herles 1998) and homeless people in France SDF, as already mentioned. The motivations behind such a neologism remain ambiguous: it may have been created as a means of avoiding potentially insulting words in current use, such as clochard, but also out of shame or even with intent to “conceal”- three options perfectly compatible with one another.

“Concealing”, for its part, is in itself a vague term which covers a broad range of possible communicative intentions. As already mentioned, this function of euphemism is rampant in economics and business. When managers announce massive lay-offs, they usually speak of “restructuring”, “slimming down”, “downsizing”, “rightsizing”, or even “smartsizing” (Resche 2013: 237). Accounting practices situated in the grey areas of legality are referred to by accountants as “window-dressing”, the German equivalent being Bilanzkosmetik, literally ‘balance-sheet cosmetics’. “Tax optimization” is often little more than a euphemism for tax avoidance or evasion. Sometimes it is only a small step from euphemism to manipulation or even lie, as in the case of one former Austrian finance minister, who marketed his budget plan by invoking social justice and promising that citizens would “not be burdened with higher income tax” [einkommenssteuerlich nicht mehrbelastet werden]. In reality, although income tax indeed remained at the same level, the introduction of road tax, tuition fees and outpatient charges in hospitals, among other measures, effectively raised the general tax burden from 44.2% to 45.8% of GDP.

However, the ultimate goal of “concealing” euphemisms can also be the good of society. Especially in difficult economic situations, speaking out too frankly would cause damage to the economy by provoking undesirable reactions among the public.

If a central bank governor avoids pronouncing the word deflation, it is because by doing so he might provoke or strengthen expectations of a fall in prices, and thereby actually contribute to its coming about, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is certainly no coincidence that at the moment of writing, when the euro zone is facing the danger of deflation, expressions such as “negative inflation”, “ultra-low inflation”, “lowflation” and “subflation” are appearing in the press. Similarly, a word out of turn can provoke a bank run and thereby precipitate the crisis it seeks to prevent. So when, in 1933, with the US banking system on the brink of insolvency and savers’ trust in the system dwindling away, President Roosevelt shut down the banks for four days, he spoke merely of “bank holidays”. This wording suggested bureaucratic normalcy and allowed Congress to pass an Emergency Banking Act that stabilized the system. The expression stayed in the collective memory and later served as a model for the neologism CAPEX holiday (CAPEX is shorthand for capital expenditure), which refers to a situation where a company decides to stop investing for some time.


Dysphemisms (cf. Fischer 2015) are the opposite of euphemisms, i.e. offensive or disparaging expressions substituted for more neutral ones. When during the present crisis the prestige of bankers hit a record low, the term bankster, a blend of banker and gangster created in the 1930s, was revived, though seemingly without lasting success. The countries of the (mainly) southern European periphery whose problems at one point risked jeopardizing the Eurozone were given negative names such as English PIGS (shorthand for Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain), German Club- Med-Lander ‘Club-Med countries’, Defizitlander ‘deficit countries’, Schuldensiinder ‘debt sinners’, or Pleitegriechen ‘bankruptcy Greeks’. Such dysphemistic expressions, however, are more typical of political and media discourse than of the language of economics and business in the strict sense.

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