We know what it means to croak, expire, buy the farm or kick the bucket. It means someone passed away, is dearly departed, went to a better world or set off on an exciting new adventure. These are euphemisms. Their purpose is to make something scary, threatening, disgusting, horrible or degrading sound better for purposes of mollification, obfuscation, propriety, deception or political correctness. Euphemisms sometimes act as social lubricants. They help us get by and reduce tension. It is not always beneficial to say exactly what we mean.
In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell, who passed away in 1950, takes a contentious stand on the subject. He claims that euphemisms reflect the insidious decay of language and culture with causes ranging from rhetorical incompetence to Machiavellian manipulation. While the dearly departed Orwell deplores even the most venial euphemisms—writing “tow the line” instead of “toe the line”—he is incensed by the machinations of power mongers, who use language to alter perceptions of reality, often to cover up mass murder, secret police atrocities or governmental larceny. As Orwell observes, “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it; consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy.” In 1949, for example, the repressive Soviet satellite state of East Germany named itself the German Democratic Republic. In the same year, Communist dictator Mao Zedong created the People’s Republic of China. Coopting words like “Democratic” and “Republic,” along with phrases like “transfer of power” or “rectification of frontiers”—Orwell’s examples—is not the work of naïve or incompetent rhetoricians, but a strategic attempt to disguise nasty truths. Looking down from a better world, Orwell would not be surprised to read about “ethnic cleansing” or “extraordinary rendition.” This last phrase does not describe a well-performed song but a Democratic Republic’s recent practice of using covert operatives to convey suspected problem-persons to foreign locations for enhanced interrogation.
Euphemisms do not simply take their place among everyday clichés or characterize the rhetoric of political disinformation. They have also morphed into videographic forms that excite concerns regarding the politics of public discourse.
Many of us who suffer from diabetes, heart disease, fibromyalgia, Crohn’s, rheumatoid arthritis, erectile dysfunction, psoriasis and the after-effects of chemotherapy belong to the core demographic that tunes into the nightly network news. In between accounts of the latest mass shooting, political gridlock, deadly weather, and assorted sex scandals, we are bombarded by visual euphemisms as the makers of pharmacological ads employ benign, upbeat, fast-paced forms of visual stimulation to override the auditory sense. They want us to see but not really think.
The process begins with a drug’s name. A laboratory-born biochemical agent like “Pregablin” with its perplexing collision of ugly-sounding consonants becomes branded as “Lyrica.” An unpronounceable compound called “Adalimumab” appears for public consumption as “Humira.” “Lyrica” sounds like lyric, which reminds us of songs, toe-tapping, and musical soul-lift. “Humira” suggests humor, jokes told around a campfire, all things that excite laughter, relief and catharsis. Stelara is stellar. Brilanta says brilliant. Farxiga must be far-seeing. Keytruda promises the key to truth.
The ads that present visual euphemisms employ scenic montages wherein a happy, liberated patient enjoys peak moments in a clean, well-lighted life. The Dancing Diabetic is feeling so well from his weekly injection that he moves through life in a conga-like strut. He dances while working the push mower. He even dances while toting papers around the office. After the unblemished body of a beautiful psoriasis patient splashes into a sun-drenched pool, she surfaces and beams under a molten blue sky. The liberated Crohn’s patient is a perky, attractive, thirty-something brunette, a producer of television commercials. She moves briskly along her multi-tasking way, even as a superimposed gray ghost image of her once-afflicted self slinks into a bathroom. The full-colored victor talks to child actors and issues instructions. She achieves full eminence while striding before a bank of television monitors. Finally, we see rugged Odysseus wearing flannel shirt and blue jeans. Returned from his epic voyage, he stands in the woods, gazing up at Penelope’s lighted bedroom window. Even after neutralizing Cyclops and outwitting the Sirens, the greatest hero of Western Civilization has come down with erectile dysfunction. No matter. The pills are in his pocket. Penelope’s bedroom beckons. He smiles. It’s all good.
But while blissful scenarios of relief, deliverance and erotic impendment unfold, we are not quite hearing the voice-over—the list of possible, sometimes serious, even fatal side effects. A soothing voice delivers a litany of ailments that might infect, inflame, or suffocate us: sideeffectsmayincludeitchingbloatingswellingofthefaceandhandsorworseningheartfailureandevendeath. On the screen, three children wave ecstatic hands at a gyrating flock of butterflies, while their mother smells a lily.
These heavy duty drugs have been approved by the FDA and have no doubt alleviated to lesser or greater degrees the misery of many patients. The problem is that sick and afflicted people are not served by resplendent visions of medical success that tacitly dramatize diminished risks. Colorful, inspirational and devious visual euphemisms should give way to the impress of black-and-white, down-to-earth truths. We need straight talk that explains in clear terms why drug X might be superior to drug Y and that some side effects may be worse than what patients already have. We should not have to block out a rapidly changing, hypnotic array of attractive people in charming situations to squint and speed-read disappearing fine print indicating that drug Z might reduce our ability to fight infections like TB, while fatal infections and cancers, like lymphoma, have happened.
But it is hard to listen and hard to read while Grandma is rowing a boat on Golden Pond and smiling in high definition at a Henry Fonda lookalike. She is feeling much better now, thanks to the friendly post-chemo nutrient she slipped into her portacath while relaxing in the waterside comfort of her A-frame log cabin.