The Euphemistic Treadmill

While the Administration is busy high-fiving itself over the death of Qaddafi (who is, I grant, not someone I will miss), I thought I’d take the occasion to stroll down memory lane and let Stephen Colbert take a look at some of the Orwellian doubletalk put forward by the Obama Administration to describe this particular war (in Colbert’s inimitable style):

What the Administration did (though it will be forgotten in the glow of having killed a despot) was engage in the venerable pastime of liars, politicians, and evildoers (but I repeat myself) known as “euphemism.” Euphemism is the practice of replacing an old and short English word like “war” with one or more longer terms like “limited kinetic operation.” The idea is to make the ugly thing the liar is trying to hide smell nicer by perfuming it with something that sounds softer, or scientific, or otherwise more palatable. So, for instance, the ante-bellum South spoke of slavery, not as slavery, but as “our peculiar institution.” Likewise, the Bush Administration replaced the old and plain word “torture” with the much nicer and more scientific sounding “enhanced interrogation.”  Funnily enough, the Gestapo did exactly the same thing. 

Speaking of the Gestapo, totalitarian states have been past masters in the art of euphemism. For instance, the mass murder of European Jewry was given the pleasant and efficient title of a “final solution.” Similarly, the Commies liked to speak of “liquidating” rather than “killing” political opponents. In the East, Chinese Commies had a charming way of giving happy talk euphemistic titles for the mass murder of citizens such as “Great Leap Forward.”

Of course, today terms like “final solution” inspire exactly the horror that the more plain-spoken “mass murder of millions of innocent Jews” used to inspire. Likewise, when we speak of the government “liquidating a high value target” we all know that this means “killing a human being.” “Euthanasia”—which was concocted to cover up the unpleasant fact that a doctor was murdering a patient, now simply means “a doctor murdering a patient,” so new euphemisms like “death with dignity” are being put forward to relieve the terror inspired by “euthanasia.” And the term “abortion” (which was originally intended to give a gleaming scientific-sounding clinical cover for the old term “child slaughter”) now simply means “child slaughter” again. That’s why pro-abortion zealots don’t like to be called “pro-abortion” but “pro-choice.” They require a new euphemism to sanitize and remove the stink from the old euphemism.

This is what is known as the “euphemism treadmill.” A euphemism is a thin piece of perfumed paper wrapped around the stinking corpse of an evil moral act. The problem is, the corpse’s stench overwhelms the scent as the bloodiness of the deed soaks through the paper. So a new euphemism is required to be papered over the old, bloody paper. Our Nobel Peace Prize-winning President might make a phrase like “kinetic action” stick as a euphemism for his ever-proliferating


“limited kinetic operations” (75 and counting). But if he does, “kinetic action” will quickly need a new euphemism because everybody will just hear “war” when he says it. Likewise, “abortion” eventually gets dumped for “choice” or “reproductive care intervention” because pro-abortion people don’t want to be called “pro-abortion.” But these too will eventually become soaked with the stinking blood of innocents shed by those who slaughter innocent children. No matter how many ways and times you tell a lie, it’s still a lie.