Time and Space


George Carlin (1937 – 2008) is an American comedian famous for his hard-hitting, political routines and strong social criticism. Here he makes a very good point about the numbing effects of euphemism.

“The van’s load is usually nine per square yard. In Saurer vehicles, which are very spacious, maximum use of space is impossible, not because of any possible overload, but because loading to full capacity would affect the vehicle’s stability. So reduction of the load space seems necessary. It must absolutely be reduced by a yard, instead of trying to solve the problem, as hitherto, by reducing the number of pieces loaded. Besides, this extends the operating time, as the empty void must also be filled with carbon monoxide. On the other hand, if the load space is reduced, and the vehicle is packed solid, the operating time can be considerably shortened. The manufacturers told us during a discussion that reducing the size of the van’s rear would throw it badly off balance. The front axle, they claim, would be overloaded. In fact, the balance is automatically restored, because the merchandise aboard displays during the operation a natural tendency to rush to the rear doors, and is mainly found lying there at the end of the operation. So the front axle is not overloaded.

This seemingly innocuous text describes the modifications necessary to a van. In order to understand the chilling nature of the euphemism of this technical document, a bit of context is necessary. The technical and everyday language disguises the truth of the van’s nature and purpose: this was the repair report for a van transporting Jewish people to Auschwitz. In this section, find out how euphemism can be used not just to soften the rough edges of life, but to conceal truth. 

Class Activity: 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:

Learner Portfolio

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? Why? 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.

Categories:Time and Space

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