Euphemism and Political Correctness

Euphemisms: Kate Burridge speaking at TEDxSydney, 2012

George Carlin is an American comedian and speaker. In this audio recording (below), he speaks about the decline of language in America. He makes several points about ‘euphemism’ and illuminates his concerns with examples from his life listening to and working in language. George Carlin is not to everyone’s taste, and you should exercise caution with this recording as he uses profanity and some of his opinions are blunt. But… that’s kind of the point of this section. Because Carlin is railing against a particularly dangerous and pervasive use of language: euphemism. On one hand, euphemisms are simply polite words that allow us to talk about things others may find offensive. But on the other, euphemisms can be used not just to soften the rough edges of life, but to conceal truth.

Political Correctness and Euphemism by George Carlin

Listen actively to the audio embedded here, noting down examples of direct words versus euphemism. Then, read one or two of these articles to form your own opinions about euphemism and political correctness:

Class Activity 1: war – what is it good for?

‘Euphemism’ is an inoffensive substitution for a word deemed offensive. One area of language in which you’ll hear plenty of euphemism is war. Try this matching activity – match the military euphemism on the left with its meaning on the right.

Did you know there is also a term for an offensive term that replaces an inoffensive or neutral one? It’s called a ‘dysphemism’. If euphemisms soften the edge of real life, dysphemisms purposely harden them. Read this transcript of an interview given by Barack Obama on NBC’s Meet the Press. Look carefully at the words in bold type, which are all examples of euphemism, dysphemism or hyperbole. When Obama says these words, what do you think he really means? Discuss with others and record your ideas on this worksheet.

Class Activity 2: gene editing

Sometimes it seems like we live in a divided and polarised world where every issue has its supporters and detractors. And while this might be depressing from a political or social point of view, from the point of view of a student of language, debates are a rich source of information. Take the topic of genetic engineering. To its supporters, the ability to rewrite the dna of living organisms is a ‘tremendous breakthrough’, potentially leading to ‘new therapies’ or ‘treatments’. To detractors, however, this kind of science is a moral ‘minefield’ or a ‘grave development’ – potentially leading to new ‘weapons of mass destruction’!

Research the debate around CRISPR, a recent development in technology used in genetic engineering, by reading this article published by teknologiradet. As you read, try to recognise uses of language in both positive (euphemistic) and negative (dysphemistic) terms. You can use a record sheet like this to keep track of your findings and try to discuss your ideas about language with your classmates and teacher.

Learner Portfolio 1

Research a contentious issue (for example: abortion; euthanasia; capital punishment; immigration; gun control; Brexit; animal agriculture) about which different people hold contrasting views. (To get you started, you can find links to wider research by scrolling down to the bottom of this page.) Discover the language used by both sides to discuss this issue. Which side employs more euphemism? Which side uses dysphemism? Record your findings in a one-two page journal entry.

If you would like to see an example, read this fantastic piece of writing by a student interested in the debate around genome editing.

Learner Portfolio 2

Get involved in the debate about politically correct language and euphemism by listening to George Carlin’s talk (embedded above) and reading some of the articles in this section. Write your own opinion column expressing your ideas about this topic. You can decide on your format: you could write a yes/no article (as in the Palatinate article) or an interview (like the Bill Maher article). Alternatively, write a straight opinion piece putting forward your own argument.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: satirical texts and cartoons

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). One of the hardest text types to approach unless you’ve had some prior exposure might be the political, editorial or satirical text. This type of text is fantastic at lampooning some of the more blatant and outrageous logical fallacies that some people – overeager politicians, climate-change deniers, pseudo-intellectuals, wannabe populists – propagate in the mass media. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of satire and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Key features of satirical cartoons
  • Purpose: satirical or political cartoons aim to satirise, meaning to ridicule, lampoon or criticise a specific target.
  • Topical: satirical cartons are up to date and relevant.
  • Caricature: people are simplified and exaggerated in ways that draw attention to the writer’s subject matter.
  • Symbolism: people, items of clothing and other objects signify wider concepts.
  • Irony: a satirical writer might write the exact opposite of what they really think!
  • Labelling: often names or captions are superimposed over images to make the target of the satire clear.
  • Artistic style: cartoons are drawn purposefully and with intention. Are the pictures crisp, heavy, weighty, light, cartoony, realistic, bright, dark? Can you tell whether the artist used pencil, pen and ink, or brush? Words that describe mood and tone can be useful when analysing style.
  • Bias: satire is often one sided and subjective, representing the opinion of the cartoonist.

Body of Work: Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation

Annihilation; Patton Oswalt’s searingly honest one-off stand-up special (caution: contains frank discussion of sensitive topics as well as strong language).

It is 36 minutes into Annihilation, Patton Oswalt’s hourlong comedy special, before the stand-up comedian mentions that he’s a widower and a single dad. What follows is a candid and heartfelt talk about the passing of Michelle McNamara, the true crime writer who was married to Oswalt before her sudden death at age 46, and Alice, her and Oswalt’s young daughter. Oswalt’s frank, confessional monologue uses humour as a coping mechanism and expertly wields language to dissect his own heartbreak and grief.

This talk contains sensitive material and you should check whether you are comfortable listening to this before you start. Should you choose to, though, you’ll hear a professional wordsmith at the peak of his powers talking about one of life’s most painful and difficult taboos.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

IB Language and Literature Guide

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

A section from this stand-up routine would be a good choice for you to discuss in your Individual Oral. You could easily discuss attitudes towards dying, under the Field of Enquiry of Beliefs, Values and Education. Your talk may deal with the global issue of ‘coping with death.’ Peoples and cultures all around the world have developed ways of dealing with the reality of death; this is arguably a truly global issue in that it crosses all national, communal and cultural boundaries. You could pair this text with any literary work that deals with this theme. Speak to your teacher about your ideas, or consult the list below for a starting point:

  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – this text provides an insight into rituals of death and dying in another culture that could easily be considered alongside Patton’s talk.
  • Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – what does Jim learn about life and death over the course of this novel? You could consider how the reality of war is hidden from him at the start of the novel, or what he learns about life and death by the novel’s end.
  • John Keats’ Selected Poems – tragically, Keats died aged only 25, and he wrote under the shadow of tuberculosis, a disease that took both his mother and brother before him. Consider La Belle Dame sans Merci or Ode on Melancholy as poems that explore the harsh realities of life – and the ways we cope with them.
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – in Act 3, Higgins warns Eliza to stick to safe topics, the weather and health, when she’s talking to his mother and her friends. But Liza’s performance at the at-home reveals she is much more able to discuss ‘real’ problems such as illness and death than her new upper-class friends.
  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare – you might like to investigate Antonio’s attitude towards life and death closely, perhaps in the letter he writes to Bassanio. For Antonio, his failure in business is a worse taboo than his fear of dying by Shylock’s hand.
  • Border Town by Shen Congwen – an ideal pairing for Annihilation. At the end of this novel, Cuicui’s grandfather passes away. The final chapter is devoted to his funeral, and the reader gets to witness the funeral rites and traditions of west Hunan in China.

Wider Reading and Research

  • Loaded Words – this NPR article explains how language shapes the debate over gun control in the US.
  • The Abortion Ban – an article examining the power of language in the debate over abortion rights.
  • Euthanasia – would you describe euthanasia as a ‘dignified death’ or an ‘unlawful killing’? This collection of articles will help you discover language that frames both sides of the debate.
  • Why do people hate vegans? – a Guardian long read article that, while not explicitly dealing with dysphemism and euphemism, nevertheless reveals the types of language one side of a debate might use against another.
  • Framing the Future of Food – a research paper about the terms used on food labeling and packaging.
  • The Free Speech Panic – a Guardian Long Read article revealing how ‘threats’ to freedom of speech are often fabricated. If you prefer to listen, you can find a podcast version of this debate here.

Categories:Taboo, Time and Space

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