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.
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:
- Making Murder Respectable (Economist Article)
- Omar Mateen Had a Modern Sporting Rifle (Slate Article)
- Euthanasia: Dignified Death or Unlawful Killing?
- Meaning/Words (extract from Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer)
Class Activity 1: Euphemism, Dysphemism, Hyperbole
‘Euphemism’ is an inoffensive substitution for a word deemed offensive. 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. Discuss with others what you think he means, and record your ideas on the worksheet below:
Class Activity 2: Loaded Terms
‘Arguing in Bad Faith‘ examines the claim of one thinker that Notre-Dame was built on ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage, and the reasons why this is completely invalid. Instead, it shows how this term has developed over time (after the war, it was used a term of tolerance and diversity; more recently – ironically – it has been adopted by a more right-wing coalition of users). Read the article, look at the way in which the term ‘Judeo-Christian’ has evolved over time, and discuss the following questions to help you understand how a word or term can be ‘politicised’ or ‘weaponised’ by one side of a debate against another:
- What is a loaded term?
- How does the evolution of language shift our ideas about concepts?
- To what extent do our personal biases affect the way we communicate, the language we use?
Learner Portfolio 1
Research a contentious issue (for example: abortion; euthanasia; capital punishment; immigration; gun control; Brexit) about which different people hold contrasting views. 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.
Before you write, take a look at this piece of writing created by a student interested in the issue of abortion.
Paper 1 Text Type Focus: Opinion Columns
At the end of your course you will be asked to analyse 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). Below are a collection of Opinion Pieces. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of Opinion Columns 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:
Body of Work: Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation
It is 36 minutes into Patton Oswalt: 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
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 poems such as La Belle Dame sans Merci or Ode on Melancholy for 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. To Antonio, his failure in business is a worse taboo than his fear of dying by Shylock’s hand.
Categories:Time and Space