Euphemisms are especially frequent when the economy is bad. Photo by Samuel Sánchez.
Don’t Speak of Cuts; Speak of Love
Euphemisms have been part of public discourse ever since there has been public discourse, but times of crisis can bring their abuse to a comical extent or sometimes even a cynical one
El País: No digan recortes, llámenlo amor
By Amanda Mars, March 5, 2012
Never fear, my friends; no one is going to lower your salary. All that international organizations like the European Central Bank (ECB) are asking from Spain is a “competitive devaluation of salaries.” As you know, we are going through a time of crisis – or “severe deceleration” – and cuts – pardon me, we meant to say “reforms” or “adjustments” – are necessary in many places. But don’t put your head on your hands: Catalonia has absolutely not considered a co-pay for public sanitation; it is merely looking at the idea of introducing a “sanitary moderating ticket.” And the government has not increased income taxes – as they promised they wouldn’t during the election campaign – rather, the Vice President has made it clear that this modification of the IRPF consists of a “seasonal recharge of solidarity.”
They say that this period of “negative economic growth” (only alarmists hawk it as The Great Recession) has not given the same invoice to everyone; it has been pricier for the working class than for the wealthy and powerful. This is not only “the asymmetrical impact of the crisis.” Though workers continue to swell the ranks of the unemployed, it’s not because their companies laid them off, but rather because these companies are immersed in processes like “rationalizing the office network”: for example, when they fused their strongboxes.
Circumlocutions, periphrases, roundabouts, ambiguities, unintelligible jargon, unnecessary foreign words…they have a long relationship with power and seduction. The persuasive use of language has been part of the public discourse ever since there has been public discourse, and in this delicate frontier, and it dances on the thin line between makeup and masks. But the use of euphemisms intensifies in times of crisis. When all the news is bad, language abuse can verge on the comic or the grotesque.
The basic idea is that the important thing about a rose is its name, that things are what we say they are. This linguistic turn explains that language is not just a vehicle to express a previous thought but the formation of a thought in itself.
Or, to go all the way down the rabbit hole, calling something love convinces us that it is love, and not vice versa, and that’s why we say “I love you.”
“The War of the Words overpowers wars between policies and has an anesthetic effect, most of all during recession periods,” states Antón Costas, chair of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Barcelona (UB). “Euphemisms has that function, (we can’t call it a virtue,) of anaesthetizing, but from there we can abuse them in a cynical, crude, and even perverse way,” he adds.
The risk of this abuse, argues the chair, is that, as Newton’s Third Law says, every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. Or, to use a medical image, “we should take care with euphemistic language because these words can numb us for a time, but when the sick man wakes up and sees what happens, he could beat the hell out of us.”
For Darío Villanueva, secretary general of the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE), “the phrase “negative growth” is the height of all this, an anti-phrase that represents the absurd. It’s like saying “hot ice”. Poets can play those games and talk of the sound of silence, but as prose, negative growth is an anti-phrase.”
Luis de Guinos, when he took over as Minister of the Economy last December 26, gave the first demonstration of his language management style. De Guindos stated, without saying “recession” a single time, that Spain would enter 2012 with a “negative growth rate” that would “determine the profile into which we are going with greater depth” and that – why not? – it would be “relatively decelerated” (sic). But this should not be just an incentive – he said – to launch the “reform agenda”.
Soon after, he put one of his reforms in black and white. Guindos himself let slip that labor reform would be “extremely aggressive” in a conversation with EU Commissioner of Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn; his words were captured by cameras and microphones.
Fernando Esteve, Professor of Economic Theory at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM), reiterates that economics “is not scientific about usage; there are very clear elements of persuasion, and depending on how you express something, you can cause one impact or another.” For example, “you could call the same decision a savings method or a cut, and the sensation you generate is different: saving makes you think of something good and prudent, while a cut is a loss of rights.” Saving, when you put it that way, sounds more like love than reduction.
Every era has its fetish words. At the dawn of this crisis, it was no more than an economic “deceleration”, as ex-President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero pawned it. The real estate bubble – which was only recognized as such when it burst, as happens with bubbles – was only going to bring about “a smooth landing of prices”, to use the words of some developers.
Villanueva casts his view farther back: “During Francoism, we could also seem any euphemisms. Democracy, for example, was a taboo word, but in time it came into use. They said the regime was an organic democracy. What was inorganic was bad. Strikes were labor conflicts, and political parties were associations,” he recalls.
The risk of euphemisms – besides the risk that a user’s scheme will be exposed by a traitorous microphone – is that they lose their influence as time goes on. This is a theory of many linguists. “When people become so accustomed to a word that they immediately associate it with the concept it’s supposed to sweeten, it’s no longer a euphemism, and another word must be found to fill in for it,” explains journalist and writer Álex Grijelmo, president of the press agency Efe, who has studied the field of euphemistic language and gives some examples: “‘concentration camp’ was, in principle, a euphemism. It portrayed a remote place. Puta (“bitch” in modern Spanish) was used to avoid saying mujer (“woman”) in public.”
The media rides the euphemistic wave. “They are totally contaminated. They are now referring to information services when they are really talking about espionage,” he argues. In the economic camp, Grijelmo agrees that “I’m sure you could establish correlation between the GDP of a country and the use of euphemisms.” The author of books like La seducción de las palabras (The Seduction of Words) gives another example: a headline from the newspaper Diario de Burgos last November: “financial entities redefine their presence in small towns”. Or high-end fashion companies, which never announce “discounts” in newspaper pages, but instead “special sales”.
News reports refer to “encounters” with prostitutes and sometimes substitute the word “sex worker” for prostitute.
Political correctness in language has also lead to euphemisms like “developing country” rather than “undeveloped country”. Darío Villanueva mentions this and specifies that the key: “One way to confirm something is negative is to negate something positive.”
Economic language has been used for determined ends since days of yore, Fernando Esteve explains. “Think of all the wealth that a business creates, the entrepreneurial profits; they are called entrepreneurial surpluses, which would signify something good. But the profits for the workers are considered labor costs,” he points out. “Nobody wants to raise costs. That’s a common feeling. And we all end up in agreement that the more surpluses a business has, the better…We’ve already incorporated this into our language [and our subconscious as well],” Esteve explained. When we speak of education or public health, for example, we can forget that they are paid for with taxes.
The professor also finds a very persuasive bias or purpose in the use of certain metaphors. “When a politician or economist speaks like a dietitian, you should tremble in fear,” he says. “What he says is, ‘You have a lot of fat; you need to go on a diet, and then you’ll start to get better.’ If you give this image to citizens who don’t understand the economy, they’ll blindly believe that, in effect, they have eaten too much, and now they have to slim down, and that this diet, although it hurts, is the best thing they can do.”
The same thing happens with hangovers. Using this image for the crisis, in some way, puts the blame on someone who suffers, for being drunk. “For me, one of the most cretinous things about this crisis is the talk of hangovers. It implies that things are going badly now because of your excess, and we cannot fall for the tricks inside these metaphors,” he argues. Journalists, he critiques, “should stop carrying these facile metaphors.”
Technical terms can also make great allies for sweet talk. Referring to collective layoffs as “expedients for the regulation of employment” is a good example. Another is the “creditors’ competition”, which was a term a 2003 law chose for what was previously known as suspension of payment by a business, a much cruder and more explicit term.
Financial jargon, which is sometimes very complex, can also make communication hazy. Debt exposure and asset allocation often refer to real estate has been seized because the proprietors could not pay for credit. A little while ago, the airline company Spanair announced that it had seized operations because of “a lack of financial visibility”; that is to say, it didn’t have money, and no one would give it any more.
In this chapter of the interminable crisis, we never stop hearing the word “sacrifice” used for cuts to programs (seeking a “fiscal consolidation”). The European project is staggering because of budget disequilibria and sovereign debt crises.
It’s interesting to listen now to the Javier Pradera’s analysis published in this same newspaper August 1, 1993. The negotiations between government and social agents on an employment plan went beyond euphemisms. “The Byzantine wording the executive branch is using to convince Spaniards that convergence with Europe will demand effort but not sacrifice has nearly exhausted its reserves of verbal gunpowder,” Pradera wrote. “The useless semantic struggle to determine whether the rigor of the new government’s budgetary politics will lead to a cut in social spending sometimes distracts from the summertime blues, but it won’t do much to help negotiations progress,” he continued.
Miguel Boyer presented the budget like so May 17, 1983: “The fight against inflation will be facilitated by an attitude of salary moderation.”
This type of language is expressed not only by the lips of public powers, Antón Costas points out. “Corporations also use them when they have to defend certain pacts, such as those for salary moderation.” Moderation moderates: it tempers, tightens, and cleans up to avert excess.
Some debates and their linguistic resources are timeless. There will be more bad years, some melancholy poet said. Businessmen, on the other hand, evade “problems” in their interviews and instead speak of “challenges”. There will be cuts for some and adjustments, reforms, or fiscal consolidation measures for others, but a third group will call it love.