Euphemisms: from George Orwell to George Carlin

It will come as no surprise to read that Communicating Economics is against euphemisms and jargon.

When making this point I like to use the example of two Georges. George Orwell, the British writer and political hero of clear writing and more recently George Carlin, the no-nonsense American comic.

Let’s start with this passage from George Orwell’s famous essay ‘On Politics and the English Language’, written in 1936…

It opens with:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse…

Followed later by:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

Now compare it to this from the colourful late comic George Carlin 50 years later – just the opening two minutes of the video below.

I use these as examples of euphemisms when trying to convince economists not to commit the same sins themselves. It’s easier to spot euphemisms and jargon when talking about things slightly removed from most economists’ daily work.

What strikes me is not that these two commentators make the same point 50 years apart – more that they could equally make the same point today.

One of the most odious examples of euphemisms used by economists is referring to people as ‘less-privileged’ or from ‘lower socio-economic backgrounds’. If we just used the word ‘poor’ – the crude and blunt power of that word would make it harder to skim read in reports and presentations. Yes it is emotive – but why shouldn’t it be? To borrow from George Carlin: I betchya if more people were called poor then they might get more of the attention they deserve.

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