Words have power, not only in their definitions but also, more importantly, in their connotations. The article, “Making Murder Respectable,” from the December 17, 2011 edition of The Economist talks about an example of this power, euphemisms: “a mixture of abstraction, metaphor, slang and understatement that offers protection against the offensive, harsh or blunt.” They’re used across cultures.
In other words, euphemisms sugar coat reality and confirm in many cases the powerful scene from the movie A Few Good Men in which Jack Nicholson, playing Colonel Nathan Jessup, tells Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, “You can’t handle the truth.” As the article concludes, “A culture without euphemism would be more honest, but rougher.”
Often, we desire to believe our illusions because they allow us a convenient excuse to avoid action. For example, knowing a condition is undesirable forces us to address the question: Why don’t we take action to correct (cognitive dissonance)? This is a downside of believing our glass is half full.
Additionally, knowing our preference to live with our illusions, we expose ourselves to manipulation as George Orwell conveyed in his book, 1984. In it, the Ministry of Truth was responsible for fabricating history for public consumption; the Ministry of Love tortured criminals. In 1949 the United States renamed its War Department to the Defense Department. In business, we see the extension of euphemisms in the form of vanilla words, names of food, compensation plans and labels.
However, many times euphemisms permit sensitivities. For example, we say “passed” rather than “dead.” So, perhaps our illusions are reality because the reality is we cannot live without them.
Don’t believe it? See what happens when you strip people of their illusions.