Literacy Shorts: Euphemism

A euphemism, broadly defined, is a mild or vague expression used in place of one that is unpleasant, embarrassing or offensive.  Typically, euphemistic language is used to help us politely understate our references to topics that are perceived to be socially awkward.  However, as we’ve seen so clearly in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, euphemistic language is also used by politicians to help shape narratives that encourage – in George Orwell’s words – political conformity.  Some of Boris Johnson’s recent writing provides a pretty decent example of this.

In the Telegraph newspaper on the 16th March, as part of the Leave campaign, Johnson expressed his views on EU legislature with characteristic belligerence:

We are seeing a slow and invisible process of legal colonisation, as the EU infiltrates just about every area of public policy.

The tone is aggressive and inflammatory: for starters, note the colonisation metaphor, and then consider the implications of the adjective invisible.  Clearly, his words are cynically chosen to incite fear.  Keep them in mind though and fast-forward just over three months to today (the 27th June)…  Note the change in tone:

The only change – and it will not come in any great rush – is that the UK will extricate itself from the EU’s extraordinary and opaque system of legislation.

By euphemistically describing the system as opaque – as opposed to sinisterly invisible – Johnson is able to successfully convey his belief that the EU is too bureaucratic.  Crucially, however, he is also able to maintain a sober and rational tone.  A tone, you might argue, that he hopes is conducive to uniting and calming an electorate that he helped to divide so deeply in the run-up to Thursday’s referendum.  Fitting for a politician who may well see himself as the next Prime Minister, don’t you think?

As the the fallout from Brexit continues, it’s worth keeping George Orwell’s words from Politics and the English Language (1946) in mind:

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful […] and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Thanks for reading –


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