If you are someone living in the public gaze, and have made a statement which you wish you hadn’t, then here is some good news for you. The American language provides you with a phrase that on being uttered can exculpate you from your verbal misdemeanour. You just have to say, “I misspoke myself.”
Two of the presidential candidates in the US have invoked the phrase. One of them said that Iran was training Al Qaeda recruits and then had to retract. He admitted that he had misspoken. The other candidate referred to her coming under sniper fire in Bosnia, and narrated how her group ran across the tarmac, with their heads down, to safety in a waiting vehicle. This was exposed when video clips showed the candidate walking from the plane, waving her hand, and stopping to greet a girl. “I misspoke myself,” she admitted.
“Misspeak” is not a new coinage. Chaucer used it in the 15th century. The meaning then was to grumble, to insult. That meaning is not current now, and today, especially in America, the word is used to mean either to speak unclearly or hastily, or to fail to tell the truth. Which of these two applies to the senators?
Words like “misspeak” fall under the class of euphemisms. “Misspeak” can mean half a dozen different things. In a society where it is a grave offence to call someone a liar, there is bound to be a search for expressions that mollify the impact of the “L” word. Several decades before this, there was another euphemism in the news: Churchill said in Parliament that the way some people defined slavery could not be accepted “without some risk of terminological inexactitude.” Churchill might have meant inexact terms or details. But since the word “lie” was banned in the House of Commons, members could now use “terminological inexactitude” as a circumlocution or euphemism for “lie”.
Euphemism has been a feature of language from primitive times. Early humans created euphemisms to refer to objects that they feared. Religious references are made softer by euphemisms like “gosh” for “God”, “gee” and “jeepers” for “Jesus”, “what the heck” for “what the hell”. Death is referred to as “passing away” or “passing on” or “breathing one’s last”. When you visit a house of mourning, you may not hear people asking, “When did she die?” Rather, the question would be “When did it happen?” Sometimes, the euphemism can sound funny. Hamlet was being more mischievous than concerned about death in this conversation:
King: “Where’s Polonius?”
Hamlet: “At supper. Not where he eats but where he’s eaten.”
There was a time when euphemism was of interest to anthropologists and sociologists. Today, it has become a central topic of interest to linguists, media persons and political analysts.
There are two areas where euphemism plays an important role. One of these is interpersonal relations. In order to avoid personal bias in interactions, euphemisms are created when referring to race, colour and attributes of mind and body. The word “Negro” has been most widely experimented with: For a while, the preferred forms when it came to race were “whites” and “coloureds”. But then, to avoid reference to colour, it was suggested that “Negro” as a proper noun could be used. This changed again with the rise of slogans like “Black power” and “Black is beautiful”, and black was accepted as less offensive than many other labels. “African American”, recommended by Jesse Jackson in 1988, is today the most widely used term.
Issues don’t get resolved so easily: Last month, an Ohio school banned a play written by Agatha Christie, Ten Little Indians, from being presented. The reason: The book at the time of its publication in 1939 had the title Ten Little Niggers, and some of the illustrations were said to cast a slur on the community.
With the acceptance of the principle that bias-free language should be used when referring to physical attributes, we have a large number of euphemistic phrases in use. The word “lame” is a good example: From lame, we moved on to “crippled”, to “disabled”, to “physically challenged”, to “differently abled”, to “person with a disability”. The modern trend is to turn all such phrases into the “person-with” form.
Finally, we can look at the role of euphemism in military action and in politics. These two often go together as can be seen in the presidential election debate in the US. George Orwell has perhaps said the last word on political equivocation as manifested in wartime euphemisms. He wrote, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible... Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: This is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: This is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.” The 21st century is still struggling to cope with concepts like ethnic cleansing, redeployment and collateral damage.
Euphemisms can be justified when their use helps to avoid hurting people, to maintain friendly relations, to convey painful truths smoothly. But if they are used to distort truth, to disown responsibility, to conceal guilt, the miasma of insincerity and dishonesty will choke truth and destroy all human sensibility.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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