The manipulation of language by politicians and people in power is nothing new. When Julius Caesar had to report on a heavy defeat in his conquest of Gaul, he reported back to Rome that there had been a calamitas (setback or misfortune). When he was busy exterminating a conquered tribe, he would describe it as pacere (pacifying) , and in the Vietnam War, the Americans used to say that they were carpet bombing Hanoi in order to save lives. The British are no slouches when it comes to this sort of thing either. In the Boer War the military decided that the best way of defeating the Boers would be to remove them from their homes and put them all into one place. Hence concentration camps were born, and the Nazis took note.
The Nazis took the manipulation of language to new heights in a whole number of ways, and understood that constant repetition of lies or grossly distorted claims (for example the claim that Germany had somehow been stabbed in the back in World War One) made them believable; that only ever using certain words in a negative context, such as Jews, eventually meant that hitherto everyday words became terms of abuse or contempt.
The Nazis were especially productive when it came to coining euphemisms to conceal sinister truths. They borrowed financial terms, such as liquidate to conceal wholesale murder and theft. The Gestapo took people into protective custody (Schutzhaft) in order to care for them (betreuen), and they took an active part in the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Jews and others were sent to the extermination camps in a resettlement programme (Umsiedlung). People who were massacred in secret were the subjects of special treatment (Sonderbehandlung). One SS report from 1942 speaks of 21 people being given special treatment.
And it continues to this day. Hilary Clinton did not lie when she claimed to have come under gun fire; she mis-spoke. And recent British governments have all graduated from PR school with flying colours. Spin itself is a euphemism for lying; you take facts which don’t look good and present them in such a way as to turn them to your advantage or at least minimise the collateral damage (another term borrowed in part from the world of finance). Tony Blair was very keen on liberal intervention to justify the use of military force in various foreign countries. The word liberal in the UK generally has positive conotations (kind, generous, men with bushy bears and sandals), while in the US, the Republican right has worked hard to turn it into a term of abuse. The fact that Blair's government was extremely illiberal in matters such as civil liberties is another matter.
These bad habits have also put down roots in local government. Carmarthenshire County Council is certainly no worse than many others when it comes to this, but it is a practice we should all resist. In Carmarthenshire clubs which provide elderly people with a hot meal, warmth and a chance to chat are being developed (closed) as part of a modernisation programme designed to meet their needs. The old people who go to the clubs are not people but service users. Meanwhile, the jobs of the staff employed to cook and look after them are being deleted (rubbed out like a mistake with the other end of a pencil?).
Why does this matter so much? Firstly because these euphemisms are designed to hide uncomfortable truths; and secondly because they are dehumanising. If someone is no longer a person but a service user, they lose part of their identity; they become a commodity to be processed. In this way a culture is created which allows nurses and professional care staff to neglect or even abuse the people they are looking after; and it allows council officials and councillors to slam the doors shut in the faces of frail, elderly people struggling to stay independent who only want a chance to have a day out, meet others, have a proper meal and enjoy some warmth.
Anyone with any good examples of council euphemisms is welcome to post them as a comment. All contributions gratefully received.
Coming up soon, jargon.