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The Futility of Euphemism

By Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J. (articles ) | Apr 22, 2003

An arresting paragraph from a CNN story on the Peterson murder case:

Regarding the killing of the unborn child, the complaint states, under the heading Termination of Pregnancy: "During the commission of the murder of Laci Denise Peterson, the defendant with knowledge that [she] was pregnant did inflict injury on [her] resulting in the termination of her pregnancy."

Why is this interesting? Because nobody believes that Scott Peterson is being charged with practicing medicine without a license. Killing the baby begat abortion; abortion begat termination of pregnancy. Now the semantic chain has circled upon itself, so that a murder committed with malice aforethought is reflexively called termination of pregnancy.

George Orwell's famous essay on language proposed that politically expedient equivocations are not really semantically ambiguous; they're used to ask and extend permission to do things whose true motives cannot be spoken out loud:

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

Does it work? Only in short term, and even then only when backed by force. In charging him with termination of pregnancy the Modesto police and the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office understand perfectly, and want us to understand, the motive of the accused. That means for the past 30 years the women's health clinic surgeon in his white lab-coat and diplomas and grave, solicitous manner has been up to the same thing as (allegedly) Scott Peterson. No one was ever fooled.

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