Code for the opposite

Euphemism 2

Why do many people use ‘mental health’ when referring to an aberrant psychological condition? We don’t mis-label physical health in this way. Instead we use terms like ‘injured,’ ‘sick,’ ‘unfit’ or ‘obese’. So why is ‘mental health’ misused? We used to say ‘mental illness’ but that changed during the 90s, no doubt born of good intentions. If we consistently used the term to describe a mental state on the continuum of health then this good intention would be reinforced. Instead ‘mental health’ is too often used as a synonym for anything but mental health. Taboo alert! Quick, reach for a medical euphemism. In other words, a well-meant term has become code for its opposite.

We do the same with ‘life insurance’. Why is that? If fire insurance is about insuring against fire, and accident insurance intended to insure against accidents, surely ‘life insurance’ cannot be intended to insure against life. So it’s really death insurance. Taboo alert again. Call for a euphemism.

We do this for other areas of infirmity. We say ‘indisposed’ when we really mean sick or hung over. We refer to nursing homes as ‘residential facilities’ as if they’re a kind of commune. Advertisers apply euphemism to all manner of personal hygiene, e.g. ‘bathroom tissue’ instead of lavatory paper. ‘Lavatory’ too is a euphemism, like ‘water closet’, ‘rest room’ and even ‘toilet’ – see blog entry July 2011.

Death remains a great repository for euphemism, especially when eulogising. ‘Loveable larrikin’ sounds far better than ‘drunken lout’. ‘Colourful racing identity’ and ‘bon viveur’ sound less judgemental than ‘career criminal’ and ‘glutton’. Like ‘tired and emotional’ and ‘under the weather, they’re code for what everyone knows is the very opposite.

‘Confirmed bachelor’ used to be code for a gay man. The word ‘gay’ itself used to be a euphemism, though in recent decades it has been re-claimed with pride by homosexuals, along with terms like ‘queer,’ thus removing the need for euphemism.

But journalists still rely on the use of code, usually for legal reasons. A ‘robust’ debate appears in print to describe an all-in brawl, while a ‘full and frank exchange of views’ is code for a shouting match.

In conversation, we know code when we hear it. ‘With the greatest respect’ often means we have no respect at all and we’re about to demonstrate that. Likewise the use of ‘frankly’ and ‘honestly’ often suggest that, until that moment, the speaker has been anything but.

Sales people deploy euphemism all the time. ‘Pre-owned’ sounds far better than ‘used’. And where would the real estate industry be without it? ‘Renovator’s delight’, ‘beginner’s luck’ and ‘would suit an enthusiast’ are code for the desperately decrepit. ‘Spectacular views’ means that the place has windows. ‘Cosy’, ‘compact’ and ‘charming’ are all code warnings for anybody suffering from claustrophobia. ‘Up-and-coming-neighbourhood’ means that the streets are crime-infested, while ‘conveniently located’ means it’s uncomfortably close to something like a freeway entrance or a busy train station.

I’m not necessarily saying that salespeople are being economical with the truth if they make reference to a sweaty colleague’s ‘distinctive aroma’ or describe power blackouts as a ‘service interruption’. But let’s at least honour the term ‘mental health’ and give it the respect of its intention, instead of relegating it to the code of negative connotations. Here endeth the rant.

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