Angela charts the trends in ‘newphemisms’
When Mississippi politician Todd Akin opened his mouth and let out a scandal, it took a hell storm of media and public ire to make him realize. The US Senate candidate had told a TV interviewer that it was less likely for victims of ‘legitimate rape’ (Akin’s term) to fall pregnant, because a woman’s body would ‘shut down’.
Whatever the crazed Southerner was trying to say, he soon found out that he had given enormous offence to a certain category of people – let’s just call them ‘women’.
So he took the line frequently heard by people whose real problem is that they leave the house in the morning…”I misspoke”.
His full explanation was: “In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it’s clear that I misspoke in this interview, and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year,”.
‘Misspoke’ has gained in popularity in recent years. For example, last May President Obama misspoke when he called a concentration camp in Poland a Polish, rather than a Nazi, ‘death camp’. The White House Press Office was quick to correct that one. But the President doesn’t make mistakes, he misspeaks.
Social media, the broadcast of the masses, gives everyone a chance to say something stupid in public, so reeling back in those unwise off-the-bat comments has become something of an art. Not art at a very high level, it is true. ‘With mature reflection I can now appreciate that I might have misspoken,” intones the politician or public official who has just declared that all women are whores or all Republicans wear terrible ties or four-year-olds should be allowed to drive cars.
What misspoke really means is “God, I’m stupid. Please ignore everything that comes out of my mouth (but vote for me anyway).”
It joins a growing list of new euphemisms, ‘newphemisms’ I like to call them, which are burrowing under the skin of 21st century language.
When announcing sackings from the beleaguered News Corp ‘digital-only’ newspaper, The Daily, in New York, the chief executive chose to say that ’50 people would be released’. As if they would joyfully greet the news that they were about to be freed – from the encumbrance of a salary.
‘Firing’ and ‘sacking’ have long been regarded as terms too distasteful to describe people being parted from their jobs. So ‘severance’, ‘retrenchment’, ‘redundancy’, came into use. But, once everybody had cottoned on to the fact that all they meant was firing and sacking, another emollient term had to be found.
And another usage related to those more, ahem, mature members of the community, is undergoing a painful and protracted birth. This morning I watched a short promotional film from a large international consultancy. The speaker was talking about “the end of the digital beginning”, and how everyone was going to be using tablets and smartphones and so on instead of reading poor old newspapers. He described how ways had to be found to ‘reach out to’ (so much reaching going on these days, there must be a terrible lot of muscle strain) and engaging ‘experienced consumers’. What he meant, of course, was older people, but he wasn’t going to be caught using a nasty term like ‘older’. Nobody wants to be older! Because, nestling in that is the three-letter obscenity, ‘old’.
Garrison Keillor, the US humorist describes his fictional Lake Wobegon as the place where ‘all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking and all the children were above average’. In that sort of scenario everyone over 35 is ‘experienced’, not middle-aged – or worse.
So we must all thrash through these newphemisms, peering intently into them to make out the real meaning. Just make sure you don’t mis-read, misinterpret, or miss the bus. Although perhaps you could tell the boss: “Sorry, I mis-arrived on time.”
P.S. And here’s a link to the whole Akin brouhaha. The photo is nice – begging for a speech balloon to emanate from the soldier on the left who has been shocked out of peeling his orange by whatever Akin is saying – maybe that it is only in cases of ‘legitimate terrorism’ that people get hurt by a bomb?
And, indispensably, The Onion on what Akin really meant…