One well-known example is 'collateral damage', a military term which tries - and fails of course - to sanitise and render anodyne the brutal reality of 'civilian casualties'. Another is the business world's 'reorganisation', or its alternative, 'restructuring', to describe the cruel act of throwing thousands of people out of a job and into unemployment queues. Those two examples are, of course, indicative of a desire to hide bad news, but others can have the opposite intention - that of exacerbating the truth.
This is a favourite press tactic which is often used by journalists who wish to render their articles more sensationalist or slanted (or both). That's why newspapers which offer partisan opinion articles on a given conflict use either 'terrorist' or 'resistant/rebel' to describe people who kill other people, depending which side of the fence they are on. Then there's 'genocide', or 'genocidal act'. This one takes cynical advantage of the fact that there is no single definition of it, and that is why it is slowly being watered down from its original connotation for most people, which is the deaths of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people in an attempt to eradicate a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The result is that I have seen it used recently to describe the deaths of as few as 2 people, particularly when it comes to conflicts in the Middle East and on the African continent. 'War crimes' and 'crimes against humanity' have also become popular to describe the same phenomenon, but when few victims are involved, I would venture to say that 'unlawful killing of prisoners or civilians' is more accurate. After all, we can't realistically take every soldier/guerilla fighter who kills two people to the International Criminal Court - the international court which deals with these and similar crimes - to be tried, however awful their actions may be.
Not that the Anglophone world is alone in deploying the fine art of inventing touchy-feely ways to describe negative images of course. The French are no novices at this game either, and just like Anglophones, they know how to sugar the pill. Better-known examples include 'zones sensibles' - 'sensitive zones/areas' - a would-be benign way of describing 'ghettos', which, in France, is a highly negative and crime-inferencing expression uniquely reserved for descriptions of similarly disadvantaged areas of cities not in France, but in other countries, and most notably America. Then there's my all-time favourite, 'Les Evénements' - 'The Events' - to describe what the rest of the world has always called 'the Algerian War'. That said, the latter term is finally becoming acceptable here, but hey, a war described as an 'event'? The tradition continues today, and that's why Hollande and his government have literally banned the use of 'austerity measures' to describe what in reality are spending cuts, higher taxes and other belt-tightening fiscal measures. The buzzwords now are 'fair redistribution', 'economic rationalisation', 'economic mesures' and 'a national effort'.
I mention all this because coincidence has it that I have read a few news stories this week in the French press which all discuss the the meanings and implications of terms used to describe phenomenon or events. But although I imagine that most people would agree that the examples I cited above are no more than overtly biased attempts to give unpalatable hard facts a soft landing, those I have found this week are more likely to provoke diverse opinions.
The first one concerns the efforts of French Socialist députée Sandrine Mazetier, who would like to see the French term 'école maternelle' replaced by an alternative because, she argues, the word 'maternal' intrinsically implies that kindergardens, pre-schools and nursery schools, (according to local use in different Anglophone countries) are uniquely the affair of mothers and the female sex and, as such, is sexist. She suggests alternatives such as 'small child schools' or 'first/primary schools', which she says are more gender-inclusive. Does she have a point? Or, as her critics are asking, "doesn't the government have anything better to do in times of a financial crisis than to play around with semantics?" Hmmm.....
Next up are a couple of articles which address expressions which are being hotly contested during the ongoing debate on gay marriage, and the first one is very interesting. Those who oppose gay marriage say that the word 'marriage' can only be applied to a marriage between a man and a woman, and that another term should be found to define same-sex unions. Yet at the same time proponents of 'gay marriage' also disagree with that term on the grounds that it differenciates between 'marriage' and 'gay marriage', so they think that the terms 'gay' or 'homosexual' marriage should be banned, and that 'marriage' alone is more in line with the idea of equal rights and considerations. Is one side or the other being too pernickety for pernickety's sake? If so, which one? What new term should be used instead?
Another bone of contention in the gay marriage debate is that of the terminology 'parent 1 and parent 2'. Opponents say that these terms reduce people to numbers and "why not have 'parents 3 and 4' too while we're about it, to include the lover and the bigamist's partner?" Notwithstanding, the French national rail company SNCF has apparently decided that the gay marriage bill will be voted into law, so it has already taken steps to replace the terms 'mother' and 'father' in the documents it asks employees to fill in which include marital and personal status with 'parent 1' and 'parent 2'. The government denies that either term will be used once the law comes into force and says that the two categories of 'husband' and 'wife' will be replaced by the more inclusive 'husband and wife', and that 'mother' and 'father' will become the equally egalitarian 'parents'. Phew! I'm getting dizzy with all these alternatives! Is all this a storm in a terminological PC teacup or does the future of humanity depend upon making the right choice?
Lastly - and perhaps most importantly - François Hollande's election promise to eliminate the word 'race' from Article 1 of the French Constitution is to be put to parliament before this summer. But this is not an example of changing nomenclature to hide realities, on the contrary. It's about purely and simply removing a term, and the phenomenon it defines, from use with a strikethrough stroke of a pen and without replacing it. And it is likely to cause a real ruckus because the consequences of eliminating the word 'race' from the Constitution could have far-reaching implications for freedom of information in France. Paragraph 1 of the French Constitution states that;
'France is an indivisible, laïque [i.e. secular], democratic and social Republic. It guarantees equality before the law of all citizens without distinctions of origin, race or religion. It respects all beliefs. Its [organisational structure] is decentralised.'
Hollande explained his reasoning at the time by saying that "there is no place in the Republic for [the notion of] race."
Unlike almost every other modern democracy, France has always been notoriously loath to publish official statistics on racial discrimination (and indeed societal statistics in general) because it fears that doing so would be tantamount to officially acknowledging the widespread existence in France of racial discrimination in areas such as housing, employment, political representation, the jail population, crime statistics and the holding of high office for all to see. And it has systematically used Article 1 to justify this refusal.
Removing the word 'race' from Article 1 would thus theoretically remove any obstacle to the compiling of statistics relative to racial discrimination. But is that Hollande's objective? Or is he merely trying to reinforce France's eternal and cynical refrain that 'there is no racial discrimination in France because we are French first and foremost and our origins are not taken into account'? This is not an easy call....
Anyway, those are my 'what's in a wordical' musings of the day and any opinions you may have on them would be welcome.