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The art of political euphemisms

David Miliband
I have always wanted to support Gordon's leadership
David Miliband
The art of euphemism has been a part of political life since time began.

When three treasury ministers, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, resigned from Harold Macmillan's government in 1958, he described the crisis as "a little local difficulty".

And when David Davis resigned to fight a by-election on the issue of 42 day detention, tearing asunder the shadow cabinet and going against the party line, David Cameron described the decision as "brave and courageous".

"Politician's get it with their mothers milk" says Nigel Rees, author of A Man About a Dog, which looks into the subject.

"It is part of politics to make things look better than they really are. What is a spin doctor but a serial euphemiser?"

Not lying

So what is the difference between a euphemism and an out-and-out lie?

Rees explains that the two should not be confused.

The Greek origin of the word means "to speak fair", and it is a natural human inclination.

"You wish to put a positive construction on your deeds and words," he says.

Where it becomes confusing is when a euphemism is used to hide an all out lie.

Churchill's "terminological inexactitude" is a prime example, as is the now famous phrase from the Australian 'Spycatcher' trial that one of those being interviewed was being "economical with the truth".

Mis-euphemised

Norman Fowler
I have a young family and for the next years I should like to devote more time to them while they are still so young
Norman Fowler's resignation letter
But political commentators had better be careful. Sometimes politicians are not trying to soften their true motivations.

When Norman Fowler resigned from Margaret Thatcher's cabinet he did so on the grounds that he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Some political pundits speculated that he was using the excuse to disguise a rift in the cabinet.

But Lord Fowler's diaries from the time show that the minister really did want to spend more time with his young family.

"I'd been in the cabinet for 11 years, both my daughters had been born while I was in the cabinet," he says.

"I just felt that if I didn't take this opportunity then it was gone forever."

Across the pond

On the other side of the Atlantic, euphemisms are equally popular, especially in the language of war.

"Collateral damage", "friendly fire" and "extraordinary rendition" have all entered the military lexicon.

Hillary Clinton
I did mis-speak the other day. You know this has been a very long campaign so occasionally I am a human being like everybody else
Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton recently got into trouble when she claimed to have been pinned down by sniper fire while on a trip to Bosnia.

When video footage revealed the episode had been a figment of her imagination, she went in front of the cameras and admitted to "mis-speaking".

Only natural

Before we are too judgemental on politicians' propensity to euphemise, we should remember that everyone does the same thing in their everyday life.

Whether talking about taboo subjects like death and illness or breaking bad news to people we do not want to hurt, we are often willing to sugar-coat the truth.

"I find them wonderful. The way people go to extraordinary lengths not to call a spade a spade," says Nigel Rees.

"I've found 100 ways that people tell each other they are going to the lavatory.

"Even the word lavatory is a euphemism."



Is there a political euphemism that particularly winds you up? Do you think politicians should be allowed to get away with being economical with the truth?

"I'm getting on the with the job..." Translation: "I refuse to answer your question."
Steve, Cardiff UK

"On the grounds of National Security" is one that makes me grate my teeth, since from its usage it appears that most politicians equate National Security with their own job security.
Darren W, Derby

I like (and use myself) "a frank and open exchange of views" took place.......i.e. an unholy row where there was no common ground.
Peter, Epsom

I use the term "doing a gordon brown" when referring to someone who is disloyal to their leader or who dithers.
andynoneoftheabove, Shrewsbury

The first thing that comes to mind is all of the ridiculous ways that live TV news reporters have of saying "I don't know", as highlighted on Charlie Brookers' brilliant "Screenwipe". "This story is still developing", "Details are still patchy", "The full picture is only just emerging", "It's too early to know exactly", "There are conflicting reports", "The police are saying little", etc etc.
Phil Jury, New Milton

How do you know when a politician is lying? When he opens his mouth.
Douglas Lee, London

The word I find quite irritating when used as a political euphemism for 'dirty great problem' is 'issue'. My toes curl when a politician launches a sentence with the words... "the issue is this....". The word is thrown around so much because it's rather bland, non-specific and non-scary. Iraq becomes a 'complex issue'.... not a bloody war going horribly wrong. And a cabinet minister found with his trousers down becomes a 'sensitive issue'.
Lorraine Kirby, St Albans, UK


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