The mere suggestion that Chunk might be dead was too much for poor Mikey: “Don”t say that! Never say that! Goonies never say die.” I could barely read the first time I saw “The Goonies,” but I understood Mikey”s point: If Goonies don”t say die, Goonies can”t die. Like Mikey, I had already learned to fear certain words, “die” occupying a central position on the list right between “teenager” and “basement.” I supported Mikey in his decision not to say “die” because to say it meant to admit death was a distinct possibility.
Once I realized people would go on dying whether or not I talked about it, I grew out of this. Some people never do.
Some people still insist on saying “Uncle Stanislaus passed away last night.” He stopped breathing, his heart stopped beating, his vital organs ceased operations and his brain now has fewer electric currents running through it than a bowl of lime Jell-O with a big plastic spoon in it.
Who are these people trying to kid? He”s dead. Dead, dead, dead. But some people don”t like to say “die.”
When a veterinarian euthanizes a dying dog, it”s called “putting the dog to sleep.” But it doesn”t work with people. You wouldn”t tell a five-year-old that Dr. Kevorkian put Grandpa to sleep. That sounds terrible, doesn”t it? Same biological process. Different euphemism. In times of war, dead civilians become “collateral damage,” we kill people unintentionally with “friendly fire,” dead soldiers become “casualties” and bombings become “military campaigns.” Personally, I”d rather have bombings somehow, our current Commander-In-Chief seems better qualified to bomb a country off the map than to run a campaign. But I digress.
A euphemism”s primary purpose is to obscure the truth.
If somebody were to sever my left arm with a hacksaw, I”d be eligible to join support groups for people with “limb differences” (Note: This phrase is not a figment of my imagination. It is an an actual umbrella term that describes missing, altered or otherwise abnormal limbs). I could say, “I have a limb difference” instead of “I don”t have a left arm.” But I wouldn”t. Why? Because talking around a problem doesn”t make it less of one no matter what I called it, I”d be missing an arm, and all the verbal gymnastics in the world wouldn”t bring it back. Jumping rope without assistance would be a near impossibility.
Further, “limb difference” would suggest that I had both of my arms, only there was something unique about one of them. Something that distinguished it from other limbs of the same name. If I had an arm made entirely out of Spam or an arm with a built-in digital television and wireless Internet access, then I would say I had a limb difference. Not before.
There”s nothing wrong with not having an arm. Lots of people don”t have one or both of their arms. You could say they”re unarmed. And it wouldn”t be a euphemism. If anything, it would take away from the stigma. “Limb difference” is sterile and intimidating puns are safe and (forgive me) disarming. More importantly, puns are direct they are beautifully shameless, un-PC and easy to understand.
People looking to manipulate public opinion, win arguments and discuss unpleasant subjects design their euphemisms very carefully. An effective euphemism is one that polarizes the issue at hand: Right and wrong, moral and immoral, progressive and Neanderthal. Its words often avoid whatever bothers people about the issue (e.g. neither “dead” nor “civilians” appears anywhere in “collateral damage”).
Linguistic dichotomy encourages a similar dichotomy of thought. It facilitates name-calling, closed-mindedness and sweeping-moral-statement-making. Abortion debate rhetoric is a prime example of this. If I am “pro-life” and you disagree with me, then you must be “anti-life” or “pro-death” you must think killing babies is a great idea. If I am “pro-choice” and you disagree with me, then you must be “anti-choice” or “pro-fascism” you must think the government should have 24-hour unrestricted access to my uterus, which should itself be equipped with a tiny surveillance camera and an alarm that would sound if anything unsavory was going on down there. Either way, you sound like a terrible person and I win.
Don”t let the sneaky semantics fool you things are what they are, and there”s no reason to be afraid of saying so as bluntly as possible. Using timid, substance-free language to describe what we do marginalizes even our most courageous acts heroes do not laugh in the face of “passing away.”
Listen critically. Speak clearly. Don”t be a Goonie.
Aubrey Henretty can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.