Thursday, April 26, 2012

What’s in a Name?

Yesterday, I heard a woman on CNN promoting women’s health care. As she continued speaking, I realized she was talking about the importance of assuring that birth control and abortion would always be made available to women. Wow! I thought. She has remarkably neutralized the issues of abortion and birth control (hot button ‘words’) simply by re-naming, or re-wording them as “women’s health care.” It is indeed a unique use of what-we-call ‘euphemism.’

A euphemism is a word or phrase which is used in order to make something that may have a bad connotation sound better. For example, our military invasion of Iraq was called a “peace effort.” Pornography is called “adult entertainment.” An unemployed person is “between jobs.” A public bathroom is a “restroom.” When a lady uses the toilet, she is “powdering her nose.” Used cars are “pre-owned.” A prison is a “correctional facility.”

This issue of “re-naming” was first brought to my attention with the California debate over gay marriage. Conservatives framed it as a moral issue. But when gay activists were successful in reframing it as one of civil rights, i.e., "Gay Rights," I knew they would eventually prevail. A euphemism may simply be polite speech, but it can also be a powerful tool to influence attitudes and values. Whoever controls the meaning of words can can control the people who use them.


  1. It seems our society likes to try to make everything "kinder and gentler" for varied purposes. Recently I was with a family who had to remove some animals from there home. They were concerned (like many parents) that their young daughter would not take the news well if she new what was going to happen with them. She asked where they [the animals]were going. Her Mom said "They're going to a better place honey." The young girl quickly replied "A better place means Heaven; you're gonna kill them." And she went back to playing with her toys. So who are we really fooling with the re-name game? On the other hand, there is an industry specific term in my business which has been hijacked and I need to explain it's true meaning and proper use to many people every month because our society tends to believe what is commonly said without fact-checking. As part of a recent book which I helped author, I looked up the specific term in Wikipedia [easy and very popular place], and even there, it gave a great history and proper use of the term. So easy to test our assumptions, but how many do?

  2. Greg,

    Funny that you wrote this in this way. I have been thinking about "words" a lot and how to use them to relate, rather grab attention. This was yet another timely entrance!