“Euphemism” can be defined as “a mild, indirect, or vague term for one that is considered harsh, blunt, or offensive” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/euphemism). However, in business, politics, and some other areas, euphemisms are used to mask the real meaning of a word in order to sell a product, regardless of whether the product is a cereal or a political system.
In this list, which is admittedly far from complete, we’ve omitted euphemisms for body parts or bodily functions, and only briefly mention those coined for political correctness. Instead, we’ll focus on terms created to mislead consumers, or at least to lessen the negative impact of the actual undisguised terms. A few samples of euphemisms in politics and war will be mentioned.
Faux diamonds, faux gold, and other foreignisms: The French word for “false” is certainly more chic than its English equivalent. Who would buy “false diamonds”? Also “escargots” sounds more appetizing than “snails,” and “calamari” more tasty than “squid’s tentacles.” Could Starbucks get away with charging a small fortune for its double espresso if they didn’t call it “doppio”?
Down alternative blanket: This product sells for $29 on line, while an authentic goose-down blanket may cost more than ten times this amount. “Down alternative” certainly sounds better than “polyester filled,” which it actually is.
Wine product: This new product is now being sold in supermarkets. The label proclaims, in regular-size type, that you’re buying Cabernet-Sauvignon or some other well-known varietal wine. The term “wine product” in small type is the first indication that you’re not actually buying wine as the term is generally understood. The first ingredients listed on the back label are water and sugar, followed by “California table wine,” this latter being an old term for the lowest quality of wine.
Olivio spread: This “faux” butter prominently displays an olive branch on its label, and its name is also supposed to remind us of olive oil. However, the first two items of the list of ingredients are water and soybean oil, olive oil being the (how distant?) third followed by “salt, sweet cream buttermilk, xanthan gum, soy lecithin, polysorbate 60, lactic acid, (potassium sorbate, calcium disodium EDTA) used to protect quality, maltodextrin, natural and artificial flavor, vitamin A palmitate, beta carotene (color).” Bon appétit!
Made with: If a product is “made with” a noble ingredient, it doesn’t mean that the latter is the only, or even the first, ingredient in that product. For example, a product called “Oat Blenders,” the package of which prominently displays the words “With Honey,” has oats as ingredient #4 (after corn, wheat, and sugar), and honey as ingredient #13 (after sugar, brown sugar syrup, and corn syrup, among others).
Canola oil and other renames: Not many people know that this product, whose previous name “rapeseed oil” did not take off for obvious reasons (although it has nothing to do with sexual violence), was given an invented name coming from “Canadian oil.” Other food products renamed for marketing reasons include “sweetbread” for calf pancreas glands, “Rocky Mountain oysters” for beef testicles, “chitlins” for boiled pig intestines, “orange roughy” for slimefish, “mahi-mahi” for dolphinfish, and “Chilean sea bass” for Patagonian toothfish.
Dried plum (juice): While not an invented name as the previous ones, this product name is being used due to the term “prune juice” being associated with constipation of old folks.
PU leather: Also known as “bicast leather” or “split leather” is a material consisting of a split leather (made from the fibrous part of the hide) backing covered by polyurethane. A low-cost replacement for genuine leather.
Cholesterol-free: When applied to foods containing no ingredients of animal origin, the expression is meaningless. Cholesterol is produced by the (human or animal) liver, and only foods made of animals with a liver can contain cholesterol. Similarly, calling a product that contains no natural grain “gluten-free” is like emphasizing that a baby formula contains no arsenic.
Natural: Probably the most abused term, especially when applied to food products. It is useful to remember that not everything that’s natural is good for you, and not everything that’s good for you is natural. Poison mushrooms are natural, but they can kill you, while some additives, even if they are “non-natural,” i.e., they don’t occur in nature, are harmless, but necessary for preventing food from spoiling or useful for lending it taste and other desirable qualities. Neither the US Food and Drug Administration nor the International Food and Agriculture Organization have any strict definition of the term “natural.”
Natural flavor with other natural flavor: I found this gem on the site http://lynnschneiderbooks.com/tag/misleading-food-labels, and it is on the actual box of Nabisco’s Triscuit crackers.
Creative spelling: “If a label says the food is, or contains, fruit, cheese, crab, cream, or chicken, it must indeed contain these things. But if the label calls the product froot, cheez, krab, crème, or chik’n, the product can be whatever the food scientists [or the marketers] can dream up.” (http://www.centerforadvancedmed.com/2014/03/food-labels-what-they-do-and-dont-tell-us )
Order of ingredients: “Ingredients must be listed in order by weight or volume. The more of the ingredient is in the product, the closer that ingredient is to the top of the list. But there are ways to get around this. For example, sugars are considered to be not healthy, and sugar might be the main ingredient in a product. So manufacturers might use several kinds of sugar such that none of them individually is within the first few ingredients.” (http://www.centerforadvancedmed.com/2014/03/food-labels-what-they-do-and-dont-tell-us )
X-flavored: Never mind that the package features an appetizing picture of X (usually fruit); and that X appears, in some form, in the product’s name; the product, or at least its flavoring, was most likely born in a chemist’s lab.
The Day’s Buzzword: From time to time, a buzzword appears that makes certain products to be perceived as more desirable than products not having the feature represented by that buzzword. The buzzwords we’ve often seen lately are “natural” (discussed above), “organic,” “antioxidant,” “not genetically modified,” “low-salt,” and “low-fat.” More often than not, at one point of time it is found out that the features represented by these buzzwords have little or no health benefits or the benefits are provided only by industrial quantities of the product, or are offset by side effects that are worse than the harm they are touted to prevent. An especially popular buzzword is “light” (or “lite”), which can mean light (mild) in taste, light (low) in fat, or light in sugar. More often than not, a “light” product is obtained from its regular equivalent by diluting it with water or some other neutral substance. In that case you’ll have to consume more of it to enjoy the same taste effect, which, of course, defeats the purpose.
Free range: Another ill-defined buzzword referring to the treatment of animals before they are slaughtered. The US Department of Agriculture, while if defines the term “free range,” it sets no requirements for the amount, duration, or quality of outdoor access. More often the term just means that the animals have had some exposure to the outdoors.
Fat-free, sugar-free: We all look for a pleasant taste in the food we eat. Unfortunately the three substances that provide most of the flavor in the food we consume are fat, sugar, and salt. Therefore, if a product is sugar-free, it may be loaded with fat, and if it’s fat-free it’s most likely loaded with sugar. If it has low amounts of both sugar and fat, it will probably have some artificial flavoring to compensate for the missing natural ones. Salt can be replaced by MSG (monosodium glutamate), which, like salt, also contains sodium, the very substance low-salt diets should avoid. In addition, many people are allergic to MSG.
Reduced fat: In the US, four types of milk are sold: Whole Milk, Reduced-Fat Milk, Low-Fat Milk, and No-Fat (or Skim) Milk. They contain 3.25%, 2%, 1%, and 0% milkfat, respectively. Thus, Reduced Fat Milk contains over 61% of the fat contained in whole milk–not much of a reduction.
FREE: Marketing experts teach us that the word that helps most to sell a product is the word “FREE.” And we see this word, usually as shown here, in all capitals, almost wherever a product is sold, while we often forget the old saying that “there is no such thing as a free (or FREE) lunch.” But who of us doesn’t like to receive something for nothing? So it’s useful to remember that this “magic” word is almost always misleading. When something is offered FREE, or even ABSOLUTELY FREE (have you heard of anything that’s relatively free?), in the best case, the price of the FREE GIFT (is there any other type of gift?) is simply included in the price of the product you’re purchasing. When a mail-order purchase is “doubled,” you just pay separate shipping and handling. Never mind that S&H often amounts to more than the product is worth and that, since the free gift is shipped together with the main purchase, the extra S&H charge is pure profit to the vendor. Web sites often offer freebies after you “register,” i.e., give out personal data, which is then sold to spammers, scammers, and whoever else is willing to pay for such information.
Hair stylist: Somebody has come up with the idea that you’ll more willingly pay $50 or more for a haircut if it is done by a “hair stylist,” rather than by a plebeian “barber.” The same philosophy governs some other names of occupations such as “sanitation engineer” for “garbage collector,” “administrative assistant” for “secretary,” “housekeeper” or “cleaning lady” for “maid,” or “associate” for “employee.”
Demised: Used by the giant HSBC bank to signify “fired,” “laid off,” “dismissed.” Apparently the old euphemism “downsized” needed a more modern replacement.
Black: Formerly referred to as “Negroes” (from the Spanish word for black), individuals of this race were called “blacks” (although the color of their skin is not really black, just as Caucasians (who have never been to, and don’t originate from, the Caucasus) have a light-colored, but never really white skin), or African-Americans, although they, or any of their ancestors of fewer than four or five generations back, have never been in Africa. And how would you refer to descendants of African slaves now living in Europe, South America, or the Caribbean? “Colored,” the term formerly used in the segregationist South, is loaded with negative connotations, as is the word “Nigger.”
The old term “mongoloid” or “oriental,” applied to another race, is considered offensive by some, so it has been replaced by “Asian.” Never mind that the 1.3 billion people of India, or the Iranians, Saudis, and Pakistanis are all Asians, but don’t look like the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, or the people of the Phillippines, Indonesia, or Indochina. The English language still lacks neutral but correct names for people of different races.
Collateral damage, final solution: Historic events of the 20th and 21st centuries provided a plethora of euphemisms to mask some seriously bad actions by both sides of the front lines. A listing of those terms would go beyond the scope of this article. Let’s just mention “collateral damage” for unintended death of civilians from a military action, “final solution” (of the Jewish question) for the Holocaust and the murder of six million innocent people, and “ethnic cleansing” for the forced displacement of entire populations from their traditional homes. There is a long list of euphemisms just for the word “kill” (take care of,
take for a ride, rub out, bump off, knock off, eliminate, waste, smoke, blow away, off, hit, clip, whack, neutralize) (http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/drgw008.html).
The same concept may acquire a positive or negative coloration depending on the word used for describing it. Those labeled “terrorists” by one side of a conflict are “freedom fighters” for the other side. Also, the same word may have positive or negative connotations depending on who is using them., “Crusaders” is a positive term to most Christians, but not to Arabs or Jews, who suffered the murderous raids of those warriors. Similarly, “bandeirantes,” the armed adventurers that conquered huge chunks of the South American continent for Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, are revered in Brazil, but considered mere bandits in Spanish-speaking South America.
Language is supposed to impart information, but no one has ever said that this information is necessarily objective. On the contrary, it often carries the biases and intentions of the speaker or writer. Individual words may be tainted to promote an idea or a product or to cause or avoid causing offense. Euphemisms are used in business to sell a product, to distinguish it from its competitors, and/or to suggest a quality that it may or may not have. In politics, euphemisms serve a similar purpose. Marketers and PR people go to great lengths to use, and sometimes invent, words that show a product, political system, action, or person in a favorable light. The opposite of euphemism, dysphemism, is used to show or induce contempt for competitors, opponents or simply people that are different. The words “nigger,” “kike,” “feminazi,” and “cheapo” belong to this category.
While some euphemisms and dysphemisms are playful and harmless, others are intentionally misleading or hurtful. It is important that the rational listener or reader go beyond the atmospherics of words to find their actual meaning. Translators, in particular, should be aware of the proper register of words, taking into account both their objective meaning and any positive or negative coloring.