Time and Space

Euphemism and Political Correctness

“A euphemism is a kind of lie.”

Making Murder Respectable
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 the perils and pitfalls of euphemism and political correctness:

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging piece of reading, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

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.

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  • What is the difference between euphemism and political correctness? Do you find one more acceptable – or more unacceptable – than the other? Why?
  • Do you agree with the sentiments professed by George Carlin in his talk about euphemistic language and political correctness (embedded above)? Why or why not?

Learner Portfolio

Research a contentious issue (for example: war; 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.

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: Erik Ravelo’s Untouchables Photography

Los Intocables (The Untouchables) by Erik Ravelo is a campaign to raise awareness on the right to childhood and the factors that threaten it.

In 2013, the Unhate foundation approached creative ad agency Fabrica, and photographer Erik Ravelo, with a project to produce an effective campaign addressing human rights, in particular the rights of the child. They wanted to raise awareness of issues plaguing children around the world: paedophilia inside religious walls, sexual tourism, the civil war in Syria, liberal circulation of firearms, obesity, illegal organ trafficking, and nuclear pollution. The tagline of the campaign was: The right to childhood should be UNTOUCHABLE.

The campaign consists of seven pictures, recreating the image of a child victim of abuse juxtaposed against an adult embodying a ‘threat’. Controversially, the adult is posed in the shape of a cross, whereby the child becomes the victim crucified on his back. In several images the face of the child is blurred so he or she cannot be identified. The images imply the child is weak and powerless, without a voice and denied their rights. The controversial choice of the cross was intended to raise awareness and to provoke debate. Ravelo wants his audience to feel outraged, getting a reaction from viewers to defend the children’s rights. You can discuss your reaction to these images and research the wider controversy if you study Erik Ravelo’s photographs as a Body of Work.

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)

Extracts from Erik Ravelo’s photograph exhibition would be a perfect text for you to bring to your Individual Oral. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry: Beliefs, Values and Education
  • Global Issue: The use of shocking images in texts
  • Rationale:

Shock factor is a legitimate tactic used by advertisers, artists and writers to impact an audience. The idea is to open the eyes of the reader by means of making them feel surprised, uncomfortable or possibly even disgusted. Shock factor can have a powerful effect – but it can also backfire, turning readers against the writer and possibly even leading to censorship.

  • Field of Inquiry: Power, Politics and Justice
  • Global Issue: Child Exploitation
  • Rationale:

Erik Ravelo designed his images around the statement: ‘The rights of the child should be untouchable.’ However, it is a sad fact that in many societies children are exploited: some are means of exploitation are obvious and shocking (for example, children being victims of paedophilia). Others, though, are more covert; for example, Ravelo’s ‘fast food’ image might make you think twice about how seemingly ordinary companies and corporations may exploit children for financial gain.

Sample Individual Oral

Here is a recording of the first ten minutes of an individual oral for you to listen to. You can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this talk as a way of improving your own oral presentations. Be mindful of academic honesty when constructing your own oral talk. To avoid plagiarism you can: talk about a different global issue; pair The Untouchables with a different literary work; select different passages to bring into your talk; develop an original thesis.

possible literary pairings
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – the opening chapter of Kadare’s novel is certainly effective at hooking the reader’s attention – but this author has much more to say about the exploitative culture of vendetta that leads to many young men to their deaths in his native country of Albania.
  • 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. His poetry is rich and vivid – and Keats doesn’t shy away from creating shocking imagery in the minds of his readers. Think about the horrific ending of La Belle Dame sans Merci for starters.
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – When Liza Doolittle – a young, unmarried girl – goes to ask Henry Higgins for elocution lessons, he barely thinks twice about using her as a way of demonstrating the brilliance of his scientific method, despite the warnings of his mother and Mrs Pearce. Consider the way he exploits Liza for his personal gain alongside Ravelo’s more explicit photography.
  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare – perhaps it’s not quite ‘exploitation’, but Portia’s father’s posthumous plot to have her married is hardly conventional parenting. Interestingly, Nerissa argues the wisdom of her father’s plan. How do you, as a contemporary audience of this play, interpret this relationship? Similarly, you might like to look at how Shylock treats Jessica.
  • Border Town by Shen Congwen – the culture of early twentieth century Hunan province is perhaps very different from the culture you live in today. In Congwen’s time, it was common for family’s to negotiate away their daughters – whether or not the girls had any opinion on the matter.
  • Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poetry – good for both talks suggested above. Mew’s poetry is chocked full of shocking images, from the ‘red dead thing’ in Saturday Market to the unrepresentable terror at the heart of the mental asylum in Ken. Alternatively, consider the exploitation of The Farmer’s Bride in one of her most famous poems.
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – the unnamed narrator of this story is a complex character. On one hand he genuinely cares for the nomadic people oppressed by the empire he serves. On the other, he’s not above having sex with young women for personal gratification. This would make a very interesting pairing for your Individual Oral talk.
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – another perfect pairing. Explore the exploitative treatment of the very young narrator by the Marquis in the title story of this collection.
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel – one of the most graphic scenes in any work on these pages is when a hungry hyena devours a crippled zebra… while it is still alive. What is the purpose and power of this shocking scene? You could explore this in an oral talk.

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:Time and Space

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