The collateral damage of nice

June 16, 2017 on 6:13 am by Michael Grey | In From Piping Today Mag | Comments Off on The collateral damage of nice

To be clear and direct in communicating – getting across what you really feel to your fellow person – must surely be one of the rarest of human traits. In my experience, it’s the norm for people to often do whatever can be done to avoid saying what might be said in the most concise and unvarnished of ways. In our use of words, in our lexicon, we’ve even invented a special category for words that are indistinct, words that soften the impact of a purer, more literal alternative. We have the euphemism.

Death and dying are taboo discussion subjects in much of the world. Rather than to die or to have died you’ll know it’s much better to have “passed away”. To have passed away must be among one of our most common euphemisms. Like quietly leaving a big party, easing away from a large dinner table or fading from sight at the end of a long road, people just “pass away”. So much nicer to think of death that way, isn’t it?

Of course, euphemisms can be crass and colourful as much as they can be gentle and soft: to kick the bucket, flatline, croak and push up daisies all fall into the category of words and phrases to use when you don’t want to say the D word.

Among many other things, Winston Churchill was a master of the English language. In 1906, in responding to a question in Parliament regarding government treatment of unskilled Chinese labourers, he said: “Perhaps we have been guilty of some terminological inexactitudes.” Terminological inexactitudes: a lot of syllables and letters to say the crisp and explicit mono- syllabic “lie”. Of course, the word lie is considered unparliamentary language and so Churchill looked to the cloying and – this time – clunky euphemism.

Sometimes called doublespeak or double-talk, the euphemism is usually about substituting words that might be blunt, or even offensive, with something milder and more indirect – vague even. Readers of George Orwell’s 1984 will be familiar with his inventions of “doublethink” and “newspeak”. There is danger in euphemisms because while the words may seem sweet, true and clear, meaning is camouflaged. Something bad can seem good. The intolerable can seem bearable.

When bombs are dropped on wartime targets bad guys can be “eliminated” – killed. At the same time, there can be “collateral damage”: civilians can be blown into a thousand bloody pieces. I can’t recall ever having heard a newsreader say anything close to “a thousand bloody pieces” in the context of a bomb exploding. “Collateral damage” is so much less, well, bloody.

And so to piping. Collateral damage in the context of pipe bands might be an acre of litter and detritus after a Worlds contest: a sodden sea of empty pint cups. We’re not without our doublespeak. We certainly have euphemisms aplenty.

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