The Euphemistic Latinate Lie
I suppose this is as much a reading and thinking tip as it is a writing tip. But it’s something we all need to be reminded or from time to time. So I’ll get on with saying it again.
The two chief things to consider, before ever putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, are, of course, audience and purpose. And most of the time your purpose is to communicate some reality to someone who really wants the truth about that reality communicated to him. (Read my review of Josef Pieper’s book here.) But occasionally, for whatever bizarre reason, your purpose is to deceive, and your audience wants to be deceived. In that case, your best tool is the euphemistic Latinate lie.
Here’s an example from Carl Olson’s blog on the Ignatius Insight website:
LeRoy Carhart, a Nebraska abortionist and the plaintiff in Gonzales v. Carhart, the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, offered a description of late-term abortion, “It’s very much a three day, four day, even five day procedure. And in our procedure, after the first day, the fetus is no longer alive. So it’s really a miscarriage of a stillborn fetus.”
How ’bout that—“miscarriage of a stillborn fetus”?
I know I’m always returning to George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” but it’s hard not to. So here’s another example of our phenomenon from Orwell’s essay:
Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian People have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”
The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow [and isn’t that a great image!], blurring the outlines and covering the details [as in our first example]. The great enemy of language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.
So, then, we need to avoid the euphemistic Latinate lie. Unless, that is, we are trying to deceive our audience . . . or ourselves.
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