Robert Fulford's column about "junk English "

(The National Post, January 12, 2002)

Use the right words and reality will bend to your wishes. That's one of the central beliefs of our society. We think words are magic. We think that applying pleasant words to ugly facts and unpleasant people will improve them.

Nothing illustrates this better than "issue," which is replacing "problem" in the common vocabulary. We used to say "problem" when something made us uncomfortable. Twenty years ago, a phrase like "his drinking problem" distanced the drinker from the drink, making the cause seem exterior to the man. But putting that much moral weight on "problem" finally rendered it comfortless. Then "issue" came to the rescue.

I'm glad to find this change noted in Junk English (Blast Books, New York) by Ken Smith, an American writer who has produced a vigorous polemic against shifty, pretentious and misleading language. Smith argues that "issue" entered common speech via self-help jargon, its purpose being to avoid passing judgment. If we say Fred has a problem with alcohol, we now clearly mean he's a drunk. But if we say "He has issues with alcohol," we imply he's facing up to a serious matter and will resolve it in time. The same applies to "We have discipline issues at this school." The word has become so omnipresent that it means almost anything. The other night the voice-over on a TV commercial for skin conditioner said: "Mature skin has issues all its own." A friend of mine was told by a kindergarten teacher that his daughter has "dawdling issues." Junk English contains the perfect example: "She has weight issues."

Smith comes across as a little cranky, but that's because he holds firm opinions without apology. He defines junk English as a fog around the truth, created by favoring appearance over substance and generalities over precision. "It is sometimes innocent, sometimes lazy, sometimes well intended, but most often it is a trick we play on ourselves."

His book won't likely be admired in the Alberta educational bureaucracy. The Alberta Department of Learning doesn't yet know that dreaming up silly new terminology makes a public official look clownish rather than creative. This week, in a report called Removing Barriers to High School Completion, Alberta loosed upon the world a new euphemism. High-school dropouts have said in focus groups that they don't like to be called dropouts. The report agrees. It says that term victimizes them by weakening their self-esteem. So the bureaucrats have decided to relabel those who never finished high school as "early school leavers."

Speaking as a victim myself (completed Grade 11), I'll of course welcome any public funds coming my way as compensation for the suffering caused by the cruel terminology that a thoughtless society imposed on me all those years. But changing the words seems unlikely to ease the pain. Instead, Alberta's report has confirmed my belief that we live in the golden age of euphemism. Weasel words have been part of language for most of history, but our period has a special liking for them. Government agencies now issue lists of acceptable terms (certifying, for instance, that "handicapped" is wrong, "challenged" right).

We teach our language cowardice. We train it to tiptoe around whatever makes us edgy. In Florida, when a wild alligator threatens humans, someone comes from a state agency and "harvests" it. Cities now have "traffic-calming measures," meaning speed bumps. Sometimes a euphemism says the opposite of what it means: "Industrial action" means stopping work, or industrial inaction. In a piece about euphemisms in The Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, Cullen Murphy cited a prize example. In the men's washroom of a truck-stop diner in New Mexico, he found an array of condom dispensers under a sign, "Family Planning Center."

The English language, so rich in many ways, comes up pathetically empty when asked for a gentle description of old people. You can call them "the elderly," you can say "senior citizens," you can even say "golden agers" -- but everyone knows you mean old. ("They have age issues" won't do the job either.)

Euphemisms wear out and need replacing. People in restaurants today ask for the washroom rather than the toilet, but "toilet" itself is a euphemism, having been largely stripped of its old meaning (the process of getting dressed) in order to replace previous euphemisms, such as "privy" and "water-closet." (Apparently we have no words except euphemisms or vulgarisms for that porcelain object, possibly a unique gap in the language.)

Poor countries became underdeveloped nations, then developing nations, then emerging nations, now "LDCs" or less developed countries. Each phrase disappears after acquiring a condescending or derogatory connotation. The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage outlines this process in a quotation, possibly apocryphal, from a woman who has heard herself successively described as poor, needy, culturally deprived, underprivileged and disadvantaged: "I still don't have a dime -- but I have a great vocabulary."

"Community" is a flattering, all-encompassing euphemism we employ to describe any cluster of like-minded humans: A few years ago, The Globe and Mail referred to "the sado-masochism community in Montreal." We in the early-school-leaving community appreciate the Alberta government's attempt to bring some dignity into our wretched lives, but I for one am sticking with "dropout." It's shorter, more direct, and more graphic. Of course, it's probably also a euphemism. At some point it must have seemed a kinder way of saying "failed."

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