Jack Nicholson was right!

In a poll conducted in 2009, Britons voted the line from the 1992 film A Few Good Men – “You can’t handle the truth” – the most memorable movie quote of all time.

For those who don’t know, the words are uttered by Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup when his testimony concerning the death of a fellow Marine is challenged in a military court. The implication of the phrase is of course that some facts are simply too sensitive or repellent for us to know.

Wind forward nearly 20 years to the publication of The Chambers Dictionary (TCD) 12th edition, and it seems that the Colonel was on to something. For in its Word Lover’s Miscellany, TCD now has a page devoted to what it calls ‘weasel words’ – terms ranging from the ‘slightly evasive to [the] brazenly euphemistic’, constructed precisely with the aim of making otherwise unpalatable truths digestible.

The page lists just 37 examples – disinformation appropriately being one of them – but even within that relatively small number several unsettling observations can be made. The first of these is that the most common theme running through them (encompassing as many as 11 terms by my count) is that of war. Another eight words or phrases refer to making people redundant, while a further six allude to poverty or debt. Granted, there’s little call for euphemisms to describe uncontentious, happy subjects (there are none in TCD to do with sex so I’ve ignored that topic here). What does it say, though, of how far we’ve come that terms of warfare form the most populous category?

What strikes me next are the differences in the nature of each category’s euphemisms. When it comes to war it appears that anything can be justified, by reference to either our own virtuous motives (liberate, pre-emptive self-defence, regime change); the dastardly deeds of others (ethnic cleansing, unlawful enemy combatant); or extreme situations that force us to act extremely in turn (enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, asymmetric warfare). Even when we have nothing or no-one else to blame – e.g. blue-on-blue, friendly fire and collateral damage – the insinuation that certain outcomes are to a degree inevitable and therefore less deserving of condemnation is palpable.

Euphemisms for staff redundancies have a different quality. They peddle the belief that things are being made better, albeit according to some de-humanising, quantifiable formula – becoming leaner (downsize, headcount reduction); more efficient (rightsize, efficiencies, streamline); or simply different (change management, re-engineering, restructuring). By contrast, when it comes to the poor it seems we prefer our descriptors passive, carefully avoiding any nod to blame or cause (disadvantaged, underprivileged), while we like to dress up debt in a veneer of opaque business-speak (leveraging/deleveraging, liquidity shortfall, consolidation).

The examples I’ve presented thus far are probably all more or less familiar to you. Too familiar, perhaps, if you will bear with me, because my final observation concerns two less common phrases – certainly ones I had not previously encountered – as follows: wrong-site surgery and benign neglect. Both I find especially sinister. Why they particularly alarm me is that by inventing them we have given the ideas behind them a tangibility and legitimacy they do not merit: instances of operating on the wrong part of someone’s body are terrible mistakes, not acceptable inevitabilities; the other is a chilling oxymoron. What really worries me though, is the suspicion that several years ago I might have said exactly the same thing about the others.

So let me end with a lesser-known quote, but one we would be wise to remember too, from Flannery O’Connor: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”