Hold That Euphemism

The outbreak of war always seems to take its subtle toll on our language. When generals start dropping terms like “collateral damage” (i.e., blown up civilians), it inevitably invites the private sector to higher levels of bureaucratese. We can see the results all around us: The euphemism reigns supreme.

To cite a few recent examples:

(1) Generational ferment. This intriguing euphemism was hurled at me this week by a senior executive at the William Morris office who’d been asked to explain the abrupt departure of five important agents (and their clients). The defections, the executive explained, were an inevitable result of younger agents rebelling against the authority of their elders.

Translation: The departing agents wanted more money (ICM doubled the pay of at least one). They also resented the parsimonious policy on bonuses pursued by the nation’s wealthiest agency. Most of all, they bridled at the fact that some of the key players who ran the agency were not themselves agents and hence lacked understanding of their problems and frustrations. The result: Mass defection.

(2) Creative downsizing. During a dinner party a few days ago, this term was seized upon by the head of one of the “Big three” networks to describe upcoming layoffs. The expression, like others of its genre, is designed to obscure rather than clarify the events taking place. Indeed, “downsizing” used to define what took place at a fat farm. That was before it fell into the hands of the spin doctors.

Translation: The networks are not laying off executives in the expectation of hiring them back when more bountiful times return. Instead, they are adjusting to a more profound phenomenon – a time when networks no longer rule the media roost. The posh times at Black Rock are gone forever. Hence, the only thing “creative” about this downsizing is trying to anticipate the ultimate body count.

(3) “Upbeat environment.” This phrase was wheeled out this week by a top ad executive to explain why important sponsors like Campbell’s Soup were pulling their ads not only from news shows but from other informational programming. Too much war content was infiltrating these shows, said the ad man. “Commercials need to be seen in an upbeat environment and war is just not upbeat,” he declared.

Translation: Advertisers faced with massive budget cutbacks are taking refuge in outbreaks of corporate skittishness. Though studies indicate that viewers watch news programs even more intently than regular programming, Paul N. Mulcahy, Campbell’s Soup’s v.p. for advertising, asserted that companies like his feel compelled to avoid “heavy controversy.” To be sure, there seems to be a conflict between what Campbell’s Soup considers “heavy controversy” and what President Bush, himself a master of the euphemism, calls “the hard work of freedom.” Advertisers apparently don’t want to be identified with this “hard work” and the networks are left holding the bag.

Clearly as the war escalates, so will the assault on the language. The temptation to obfuscate rather than clarify is the order of the day. And truth becomes part of the collateral damage.

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