Justifying his actions the other day, the captain of the Costa Concordia came up with a euphemism that is deserving of canonical status, by which I mean, it’s a belter. He said there had been “a breakdown in the interaction between human beings”.
In that phrase you can almost hear the scrape of metal against rock, smell the hot grease on the winches as the lifeboats are lowered. It ranks with Alan Clark’s admission during the Matrix Churchill trial that he had been “economical with the actualité”. And just as you had to admire Clark’s chutzpah, so you must doff the cap to Captain Schettino.
The great thing about this euphemism is that it can be applied to almost any disaster. When Theresa May came under attack from Yvette Cooper on Thursday for believing the security firm G4S when they claimed to know their fundament — another great euphemism — from their elbow, she said there had been “assurance processes”. That phrase certainly has potential as a euphemism, but “there has been a breakdown in the interaction between human beings” would have been much better.
Euphemisms are everywhere, once you tune in to them. In the newspaper world we have “biological seepage”, for the loss through natural causes of elderly subscribers. And how about this one, which I heard on Radio 4 on Friday. The climber killed in the French Alps was said by a friend of his to have demonstrated “cognitive dissonance”, a euphemism for putting the risks to the back of his mind before climbing.
Psychology is full of such euphemisms, of course, as it is not helpful to call someone nuts. The trouble is, they quickly become terms of abuse. Did you know that “retarded”, now banned, was introduced as a euphemism for “moron”? “Gay” will be the next word to be banned, as it’s impossible to stop children using it disparagingly, to mean “lame”.
I remember how my toes curled in 1994 when I heard the president of the Spastics Society announcing on Loose Ends that he was changing the name of his charity to Scope, because the word spastic had become pejorative. The next guest on was Helena Bonham Carter, who must have arrived late. She launched into an anecdote which she ended by saying she felt like “a complete spaz”.
The military world is always at it, with its “extraordinary renditions” and “collateral damage”. But the most dangerous offenders are the economists. Thus we have “underperforming assets” and “negative equity”, which don’t sound so bad, but which are, in fact, very bad indeed. Then there is a “credit default swap”, which is an insurance policy covering something very bad indeed that is going to happen in the future. And while we may think that a “collateralised debt obligation”, or CDO, sounds fairly harmless, given that it is just a mortgage-backed security, what about a “synthetic” CDO? It’s still a CDO – but it’s only backed by an index, because they ran out of actual mortgages. Again, very bad indeed.
Where the economy is concerned, I think it would help to speak more plainly. Apparently we are in a period of “fiscal consolidation”, but what does that mean? Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t it mean Ed Balls and the last Labour government borrowed money they couldn’t afford to pay back, so we’re now all screwed?