John Keane | The war on euphemism
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The war on euphemism

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This morning John Keane, a politics professor at the University of Sydney, argues that the only accurate word to describe the killing of Osama bin Laden is “assassination.”

Some may want to dispute his conclusion but what isn’t debatable is that finding the right word matters. In his famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell explained the need to be vigilant about weeding out euphemism:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’.

Here’s what Keane says about the official language used following bin Laden’s demise:

During the wild celebrations that followed, the word “assassination” was never once used by politicians.

There were instead euphemisms galore. Bin Laden was said to have been “struck down” or “eliminated”. The New York Times announced his “demise” and “death” as a “symbolic stroke”. American officials spoke of his “targeted killing”. Prime Minister Gillard offered her own version: it was “the appropriate thing to do”, she told reporters in Sydney, “to welcome news that in a firefight he has been killed”.

Sorting out whether bin Laden was assassinated has legal and political implications and it’s something we need to get right. It’s handy to know the likes of John Keane are out there insisting on the right word.


Originally published at THE CONVERSATION