Thursday 28 November 2013

Oh Lord, save us from euphemism!

It seems astonishing but it was actually more than 20 years ago that I wrote an article for The Independent which was fairly savage about certain nasty but popular expressions. One of them was ‘natural wastage’. When I first heard this I was curious; I seriously had no idea to what it referred and I recall being a little shocked to learn that it was intended as a quick way of referring to people who take early retirement at a time when a company is intent on shaving down numbers. So it’s kind of but not quite ‘a forced early retirement’.  

Perhaps the person or committee that came up with this term intended the ‘natural’ element to convey something that is going along happily in the ordinary course of things, and therefore is acceptable. But the idea of ‘wastage’ makes the expression totally repugnant, particularly as regards putting people out of work. Somehow the inventor of this expression either missed a trick or is taking the Michael.

Natural wastage is one of many grubby little euphemisms. Like most euphemisms it sits on the shady side of the street and is used as a means of, at best, lessening the impact of a hard truth and, in most cases, attempting to sterilise the emotional impact of words. But it’s an odd thing to do isn’t it? To use words which seek to muffle meaning? So often, the very attempt at muffling meaning or diverting an emotional reaction will simply draw attention and even augment the very emotion you are seeking to calm or suppress. There is a cold, clinical detachment in ‘natural wastage’ – a sense of job-lot disposal of real human beings – that is not felt at all in the easy equivalent idea of ‘early retirement’, even of ‘forced early retirement’.  
One other point about this particular expression and then I’ll stop worrying the bone on the floor any further. Part of the reason for its repugnance is that it is one of a number of macho, semi-militaristic expressions that flooded business language in the late eighties and early nineties. Business people, even number-counters, liked to think of themselves as bold, aggressive fighters bringing home the bacon, doing the deals, hoisting the stuff up the flagpole, bringing each other up to speed. The first Gulf War brought such gems as ‘collateral damage’ meaning the accidental killing of civilians into most people’s living rooms and this and other military terms were a gift to the new business ‘speke’ of that era.

Another one is ‘ethnic cleansing’ – a term that bobbed up at about this time, leaping on to the news pages and into the mouths of broadcasters as they reported on the Bosnian/Serbian conflict in former Yugoslavia at the beginning of the nineties.

I couldn’t believe that people would stoop to use such a term. What on earth is ‘cleansing’ about a process that starts at persecution and ends at cold bloodied murder? I remain amazed that this strangely anodyne term is still used today to describe an activity that so often happens in war-torn countries across the globe.  

Here’s what I said at the end of that article of yesteryear: “Natural wastage is probably as welcome a term to the naturally wasted as ethnic cleansing is to the ethnically cleansed. Let us murder, kill, rid ourselves of, but let us not ethnically cleanse.”

But twenty years later and this proved to be such a fruitless plea. There are some fashions of speaking which just disappear after a brief outing – remember how everyone in business referred to their salaries in terms of ‘k’? But a large number remain. What slightly disturbs me is that so many of those that eventually get bound into the lexicon show our weakest profile.