Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 22, 2007
Beware of the euphemism trap
Gussied-up language often masks dangerous truth
My Glass is Half Full
By MARK PICKUP
Language that obscures or hides truth must be rejected by people of reason - and particularly by Christians. Unclear language leads to unclear and muddled thinking. The opposite is also true: Clear language leads to clear thinking.
My Oxford Dictionary defines the word "euphemism" like this: euphemism n.: substitution of mild or vague or roundabout expression for harsh or blunt or direct one.
The gentle art of creating euphemisms came into its own in middle-class Victorian society. Words like "frillies" and "unmentionables" expressed shock felt by the public with subjects previously considered too private for polite company.
Euphemisms are used to try and avoid unpleasant topics or to avoid offending people. Things that terrify us like sickness, disability and death have produced many euphemisms. For example, cancer may be referred to as The Big C.
For many people cancer is the most terrifying disease they can imagine and so they will even avoid the word. A doctor may express his suspicions of cancer in a patient by referring to a "peculiar growth" or saying he wants to take a closer look at some "atypical cells."
Human unwillingness to deal with death results in countless euphemisms. A general fear of disability has also created a myriad of euphemistic expressions.
Many of these phrases are intended not to offend people with disabilities. A man is not crippled, he is "physically challenged." A person is not deranged or retarded, they are "mentally challenged."
I live in a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis so I've heard it all. I'm "mobility challenged," "physically challenged," "differently abled." While I appreciate the desire of others not to hurt my feelings or offend me, euphemisms get tiresome and make language clumsy. We live in an age of euphemania!
Euphemisms can also have sinister motives. During the Second Word War, Nazis transported mental patients and the physically disabled to their deaths in gas chambers by an ambulance service they called the Public Welfare Transport for the Sick Company. The Nazi euthanasia program of gassing thousands of disabled people provided a training ground for gassing millions of Jews.
At the dawn of the 21st century, dark euphemisms are used to disguise new brutality and inhumanity. Mass murder of entire groups of people is called "ethnic cleansing." The death of civilians caught in the crossfire of war is "collateral damage."
Euthanasia is gaining respectability with the phrase "death with dignity." In November 2006, the American Public Health Association passed an interim policy adopting terms such as "aid in dying" or "patient-directed dying" to replace assisted suicide.
Advocates of euthanasia and assisted suicide conjure up noble sounding terms like "self-deliverance" and "choice in dying." It is an attempt to sanitize suicide and assisted suicide, from its long history of shame dating back to the time of St. Augustine (354-430). In City of God he wrote: "God's command, 'Thou shalt not kill,' is to be taken as forbidding self-destruction - anyone who kills a human being, himself or another, is guilty of murder."
Do not be fooled. There is nothing noble about willful self-destruction. Christians must not be seduced by clever word manipulators into accepting evil camouflaged as good. Euphemisms become sophistry. Resist evil or you may find that what was unthinkable yesterday, becomes thinkable today and commonplace tomorrow. If you don't believe this, consider what happened with abortion over the last 40 years.
Euthanasia, assisted suicide (and abortion) violate the fifth commandment. They are grave sins and contrary to moral law. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about the gravity of suicide: "We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of" (no. 2280).
To those who would assist in suicide come the words, "Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to moral law" (no. 2282).
Shortly after the section dealing with suicide comes the Catechism's section on scandal. The word "scandal" comes from the Greek word "skandalon" meaning snare or stumbling block. Our Lord uttered his curse to those who cause another person to stumble or sin:
"Whoever causes one of these little ones - who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matthew 18:6).
The Greek verb used in this passage for causes to sin is skandalzein which literally means causes to stumble. If suicide is sin (and it certainly is) then people who help or assist in suicide are among those Jesus cursed.
And what about those who use powerful euphemisms to promote evil as good? I fear that they too might find being thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck would be preferable to what awaits them.
What awaits those that cause others to stumble? In St. Mark's account Jesus goes on to speak of the unquenchable fires of Gehenna (hell). Is that what awaits those to cause others to sin? St. Augustine commented about this passage of Scripture too. He said, "That emphatic warning coming from divine lips is enough to make any man tremble."
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.