Euphemisms have a place in human discourse but not when they obscure moral truth

052814One of the subtleties of language is the use of euphemisms.  A euphemism is a less offensive word or phrase used in place of another  term that might be considered too direct, harsh, unpleasant, or offensive. It substitutes an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that might offend or suggest something unpleasant. The word comes from the Greek  euphēmismos, which comes from eu (auspicious, good, pleasant) and phēmē (speech).

In many cases euphemisms are harmless, even rooted in a kind of charity and a desire not to offend unnecessarily. For example, we may say that someone has “passed away,” or “departed this life,” rather than that the person died. A woman may say she is going to “powder her nose” rather than that she is going to the bathroom. We may say a man is stocky, or a woman full-figured, rather than saying he or she is fat or overweight. Parents say they are going to have “the talk” with their kids or tell them about “the birds and bees,” rather than saying, “I’m going to talk to my kids about sex.”

In many ways these are polite circumlocutions that get across the basic message but seek to describe less pleasant notions in more pleasant or discreet ways.

Some euphemisms are downright silly: you aren’t poor, you are economically disadvantaged; a company isn’t failing it is being right-sized; you aren’t broke, you have negative cash flow; it’s not a used car, it’s pre-owned; your stocks aren’t losing money they’re underperforming; and that booze you’re drinking is an “adult beverage”—silly stuff, really.

But in some cases, euphemisms cause harm since they seek to deceive by hiding the truth of things that are morally wrong. It is one thing to describe a reality politely or softly, but it is quite another to outright hide the reality of something by using words meant more to distort or conceal.

Most odious is the use of phrases and terms meant to conceal the violent murder of a child in the womb by abortion. Thus proponents of this horrifying act use euphemisms such as “choice,” “reproductive rights,” “reproductive freedom,” “women’s health,” etc. Abortion facilities are called “clinics” or “Women’s Healthcare Centers.” The brutal reality is that the “choice” being advocated is the killing of a child in the womb, usually accomplished by methods such as chemical poisoning (abortifacients), chemical burning (saline), curettage (scraping), dismemberment, and suctioning. “Choice” and other such terms do not merely render this act more politely. Terms like this intentionally seek to deceive and to hide the awful reality of what is happening.

In the area of sexuality, too many euphemisms seek to render sinful things in more “pleasant” terms. These euphemisms are not merely polite terms but seek more to obscure and even celebrate what is sinful.

Thus what we used to call fornication, “living in sin,” or “shacking up” is now called “cohabitation,” “living together,” or “common law marriage.” Never mind that fornicators do not inherit the kingdom of God (e.g., 1 Cor 6:9; Eph 5:5; Gal 5:19-21) and that  this sort of behavior dishonors marriage and has caused great harm to families. Never mind the children who often die by abortion (85% of abortions are performed on single women) or if not still face the injustice of being raised in broken or incomplete homes.

Sadly, this sinful behavior is either rendered in abstract and pleasant terms, or even outright celebrated in popular culture. The euphemisms do not help in disclosing the reality that what is really going on here is illicit sexual union that is offensive to God, dishonoring of marriage (Heb 13:4), harmful to children, and destructive of culture.

And of course there are many euphemisms associated with homosexuality. Nothing could be more abstract and misleading than the term “gay.” Even homosexuality is a recently coined term to replace the biblical terms “sodomy” and “sodomite.” And while the Church is careful to distinguish between the orientation and the actual sin of homosexual acts, we must be clear that even the orientation is disordered. That is, the desire is not ordered to its proper goal. So euphemistic is the word “gay” that most people never even stop to consider what homosexual acts actually involve.

A recent article by Kevin O’Brien in Gilbert: The Magazine of the Chesterton Society speaks to the modern problem we face wherein homosexual acts are considered only abstractly:

Take the recent flap involving Phil Robertson of duck dynasty … who made what was once the rather normal observation that our sex organs are not designed for the degraded use that is made of them by male homosexuals …

The problem was that Robertson did not use euphemisms, but described rather vividly and accurately what “gay” sex consists of (Page 3, vol 17, No 4, Jan/Feb 2014).

Frankly, the physical reality is rather an unpleasant thing for the average person to consider. Uncloaked from euphemisms and abstractions like “gay,” and “two people loving each other,” the physical description of the act discloses to the average person how abnormal the action is, and that the organs involved are not intended for the purposes for which they are being used.

Frank language alert. Skip this paragraph if you do not wish to read non-euphemistic descriptions of sexual behavior. To be utterly non-euphemistic, an anus is intended to assist in the expelling of feces. It is not a sexual organ and those who use it as such (homosexual or heterosexual) engage in disordered sexual behavior. They deviate from what nature and God provide for and intend. It is no surprise that disease, tearing, and infection result from this sort of unhealthy behavior. Likewise too for the mutual masturbation that occurs in the other deviant and disordered practices of both homosexuals and some heterosexual couples.

O’Brien Continues:

Calling a spade a spade, as Phil Robertson did, blows the cover under which the abnormal folks are hiding – the cover of euphemism – of coming up with a false and fancy way of saying something to gloss over and obscure the truth it represents. GK Chesterton said it best, “[Many] depend almost entirely on euphemism. They introduce their horrible heresies under new and carefully complementary names … The names are always flattery; the names are also nonsense.”

O’Brien  Concludes: The furor of the “gay” community over Robertson’s statement belies a troubled conscience. (Ibid)

Other troubling euphemisms exist such as calling patient suicide or the killing of the sick and dying “euthanasia” (from the Greek, meaning good or pleasant death). It is not good; it is sinful. It is either suicide or murder, but in no way is it good and it cannot be captured in abstract terms like euthanasia. Human beings have souls and are not meant to be “put down” like animals. Suffering is clarifying, sanctifying, and noble for human beings. We are not required to prolong life by absurd means. But neither should we diminish the dignity of human life and the dignity of those who suffer by killing them.

There are a lot of euphemisms in the areas of war and politics as well. I will avoid discussing political euphemisms since this is not a political blog. But regarding war, I will say that we have tended to try to obscure the fact that war is awful. What we call “collateral damage” means that a lot of innocent people were killed or had their homes and neighborhoods bombed back to the Stone Age. At the end of the day, war is about killing people and breaking a lot of things; it is a foretaste of Hell. No euphemism (e.g., an action, an incursion, a coalition, a “war to end all wars,” “Operation Freedom,” etc.) can or should seek to cover this fact. I am no pacifist, but we need to be clear that war is terrible; it is bloody; and once a war is begun, it is VERY difficult to ensure that even the best intentions do not turn sour and evil in its fog. War sets loose and invites the very demons of Hell; it is ugly and awful no matter what party or president calls for it. It is no video game, and it should always be a last recourse used only in the gravest of circumstances.

So euphemisms have a place when charity and discretion are the goal. But too easily and too often today euphemisms are not used in charity but rather to hide the truth and to render abstract and murky what is sinful and wrong. We do well to insist on honesty in labeling. Charity, yes, but the truth cannot be sacrificed. Veritatem in Caritate (The Truth in Charity).

22 Replies to “Euphemisms have a place in human discourse but not when they obscure moral truth”

  1. One notorious example of a euphemism was ‘Sonderbehandlung'” – special treatment. It was the term used by the SS to refer to the industrialised slaughter of the Jews.

    1. It seems to me, today’s culture is rapidly moving beyond acceptance of euphemism (to hide the truth and to render abstract and murky) and quickly embracing the SS word gleichschaltung (the act, process, or policy of achieving rigid and total coordination and uniformity through distortion of language and ideas).

  2. Thanks Msgr. Pope for todays lesson, I never really knew the definition of euphemism but they are
    used all around us for different purposes. Good and Bad. God Bless.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful tackling of euphemisms, Monsignor Pope. So many words have been hijacked to be the antonym of the original meaning. Some examples are heresy (like your post the other day), charity/love, chastity, and numerous Catholic doctrines. The misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine challenges me, especially when dealing with certain Protestant family members. Peace to you!

  4. Unfortunately, while I agree with this essay, it brings to mind “annulment” instead of “divorce.” And of course, “Natural Family Planning” instead of “birth control.”

    1. Well an annulment is not a euphemism – it is a proper legal term. Jesus says “What God has joined together let no one divide.” An annulment process seeks to determine, based on evidence, whether in fact a putative marriage which certainly happened civilly also met the requirements to be something “Which God has joined together.” If not, the person is free to marry since Jesus only forbids breaking what God joined together. I will admit and have written to effect that I think some of our interpretations about grave lack of due discretion (immaturity at the time of the vow) need to be tightened up. But the term annulment is proper, accurate, makes a necessary distinction and thus not a euphemism at all. As for NFP, it is distinct form birth control since it uses what God set forth and involves abstinence not chemicals or barriers. The marital act thus retains its integrity. If you don’t like NFP what sort of term would you use to distinguish it from artificial (chemical and barrier) methods? By the way the Church does not use the term “Birth Control” but rather “contraception” to refer to the artificial methods.

      1. Just for consideration: In our diocese a member of the International Commission on Canon Law did a written anonymous survey of couples preparing for marriage. This was years ago. If my memory serves me correctly, something like 85% of couples had the intention of staying together only so long as love lasted! Interesting.
        Of course today when so many couples live together first, I wonder what conditions are put on any marriage. I notice that many marry when they decide to have children.

  5. The Phil Robertson affair was a very good example of the price that will be exacted if one perforates the fantasy world that has been constructed around gayness. One must never mention certain realities; to do so means the media will come down on you like a ton of bricks Their whole project depends on people not realizing certain things. By the same token, they will not discuss the fact that monogamy is very rare among gay partners. To do so would explode their whole gay marriage project, for how can it be a marriage if there is no monogamy and no reproduction?

  6. Operation Freedom was not a euphemism for war, but rather a name for a war or military action (a clunky euphemism if there ever was one; only “police action” [as in Korea] is worse). Wars, battles and military actions short of war are named so as to be able to distinguish one from another. Operation Freedom is a lousy name — more political than anything else.

  7. Really the term abortion itself is a euphemism. It used to refer to what we now call miscarriage. Now we use it to describe the direct and intentional killing of the innocent.

  8. Excellent post.

    It’s interesting that over a hundred years ago, the word “pregnant” was not a word that could be used in polite conversation. The somewhat awkward euphemism “in the family way” was used instead. In centuries past, there was a sense that pregnancy and the gestation process were a little dirty.

    Thankfully, phrases like “living in sin” and “making an honest woman out of her” are still in everyday use, but one wonders how much longer they will continue to exist when cohabitation is becoming ever more commonplace.

  9. *Frank language alert here too.*

    “An estimated 90% of men who have sex with men and as many as 5% to 10% of sexually active women engage in receptive anal intercourse……The anus lacks the natural lubrication the vagina has. Penetration can tear the tissue inside the anus, allowing bacteria and viruses to enter the bloodstream. This can result in the spread of sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Studies have suggested that anal exposure to HIV poses 30 times more risk for the receptive partner than vaginal exposure. Exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV) may also lead to the development of anal warts and anal cancer. Using lubricants can help some, but doesn’t completely prevent tearing.”

    People hate the Catholic Church, but they don’t know that they are playing with fire!

    1. Ick!!! This comment was too much for my virgin eyes. I need to take some drops!

  10. Msgr. Pope is my teacher; a heretic who makes millions on the backs of oppressed workers in China is not.

      1. Could the heretic be a leading US businessperson who has factories in China where his/her goods are made at very low cost in order to be able to sell them at a considerable profit in the West? I’ve no idea who this person is but it may not be a Chinese leader.

  11. A woman may say she is going to “powder her nose” rather than that she is going to the bathroom.

    Ah, very good. Two euphemisms in the one sentence, one replacing the other! ‘Rest room’ is another. Who goes to the toilet for a rest?

  12. The media has suppressed many words – what ever happened to Homosexual sex being perverted or perverse? Perversion seems to be our generations cross to bear.

    Thank you Msgr. Pope and keep the Faith! And as Bishop Fulton Sheen would say to you “God Love You!”

  13. Even government reports effectively euphemize. A Surgeon General’s report discovered that a number of studies show that the rate of occurence of breast cancer is much higher: among women whose first pregnancy was terminated by induced abortion, rather than the first pregnancy resulting in a live birth. The report of the scientific paper review task force refers to this phenomenon as “the protective effect of having a live birth”, rather than “the higher rate of breast cancer among women having induced abortions”.
    The industry that raises funds for “a cure for breast cancer” goes out of their way to ignore the strong correlation noted above.

  14. “Common law marriage” is not necessarily a euphemism hiding evil.

    Back when courthouses, judges, and preachers were few and far between, many marriages on the frontier were established by a man and woman being accepted as husband and wife by their friends and neighbors and treated as such.

    Some states still have laws recognizing such common-law marriages.

    However, it is wrong to use an honored term to hide simple concubinage.

  15. Political correctness euphemisms . . . attacking both from without and from within Christ’s Church . . . are also being used as powerful . . . essentially political . . . worldly tools abounding to the detriment of our culture today. Founded and spurred on by feminists, gay rights activists, etc., this movement caters and panders to these disordered groups and their gravely disordered ideas which utterly oppose our Blessed Lord’s Magisterial-Catholic/Christian/Biblical teachings and their Jewish heritage. This vast political movement has promoted what is actually the creation of a gigantic . . . most unholy and perverse . . . SEMANTIC . . . powerhouse . . . which is attacking and distorting the very foundations of the Christian Faith and Christian Morals through the unholy insinuation of . . . INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE . . . into Church documents throughout Christendom. This presumptuous substitution language STRIPS the masculine and feminine realities from the truths of the reality of the true nature of mankind and the reality of the True Nature of God Himself . . . which are essentially first and foremost . . . SPIRITUAL . . . realities . . . and attempts to utterly corrupt and completely . . . NEUTER . . . language . . . and ignore and obscure the beautiful mystery of the . . . absolute holy purity . . . and the holy morality of the . . . essential . . . healthy . . . wholesome . . . incredibly profound differences . . . complimentarity . . . and reciprocity . . . of the God-created holy beauty, truth and purpose . . . of the mystery of the masculine and the feminine seen throughout creation . . . and in relation to God Himself . . . and the mysterious God implanted . . . necessary . . . inbred holy need for these differences and this reciprocity revealed throughout ALL our Wonderful God’s creation . . . the highest order of which is revealed in the creation of man . . . whom God created in His Own Image from the dust of the earth . . . and from whom He drew a single rib and created woman as man’s companion . . . the Holy See has been actively fighting this invasion for some decades now . . . “May the Divine Assistance be always with them” . . . in this battle . . . “Carefully study to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed,
    RIGHTLY handling the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15

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