Language Matters 2: Euphemistic Labeling of Immoral Actions

In my earlier Language Matters blogpost, I focused on dehumanization  and how we name specific groups of people. Other aspects of language are also important, especially when considering the lessons of genocide and racism; today we’ll focus on euphemistic labeling.

We use euphemisms – seemingly “nicer” words to describe actions – quite often. Mostly, we think using these “softer” or “nicer” words are less harsh and will spare someone’s feelings. We might say “correctional facility” rather than “prison,” “put to sleep” rather than “euthanize,” and  “let go” or “downsized” rather than “fired.” The oddest euphemism to me in terms of politeness is when we say “passed over” or “passed on” or “departed” rather than “died” – as if the pain of death and grief goes away or can be lessened by avoiding the word. Other euphemisms seem more obviously about politeness (“break wind” or “toot” for “fart,” for example).

But euphemisms are not always so benign and humane. In order to understand this, let’s back up for a minute and consider generally how language works in the mind. Particular words call up images in our minds. We respond to those images with our emotions. So some words lead us to feel emotions, and some of those emotions are moral emotions, such as empathy, sympathy, moral outrage, etc. (We’ll discuss these in future blogposts. I promise.)

So let’s take a moment to observe the mental image and emotional response you get from the following description of a term: “during a war, the unintentional deaths and injuries of people who are not soldiers, and damage that is caused to their homes, hospitals, schools, etc.”

What images did you see in your mind? What emotional responses did you have, however fleeting?

For me, a lot of the description is pretty abstract, conveying a general sort of negative idea of innocents being killed in a war until we get to damaged homes, hospitals, and schools. That’s where, for me, the people become real because the buildings involved are specific and have specific functions. Also, perhaps, because I can imagine my own home, hospital, and schools damaged, leading me to think of real people I know and love being killed or injured. You may have had different associations with these words. You probably didn’t linger on the image much or think too much of the individuals involved, unless you know innocents personally who have died this way. This language is not terribly evocative because it’s a dictionary definition, the job of which is to describe a word or term, not move you personally in the way imagining your best friend from high school killed in this way would move you.  (That we have different reactions to language that describes individuals and particulars already suggests a lot about the possible moral ramifications of language use.) But you probably had at least a moment where you experienced a sad or negative reaction. Maybe even a fleeting thought of “that’s so sad” or even “that’s not right.” From these words, we feel something. That feeling may even lead to a moral judgment.

Now observe your reaction of mental images and feelings or emotions of this language: “collateral damage.”

(The above definition is the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of collateral damage.)

It’s not quite the same, is it? Collateral damage, even when you know and use the definition a great deal (and I’ve taught this word to many people who didn’t know its meaning), just doesn’t tend to evoke the same images in our minds. If the words conjure up different images in our minds or no images in our minds, then they won’t provoke the same emotional reaction.

I know the definition of collateral damage well (because I’ve been using this example for many years when I’ve taught this to students) and remind myself every time I encounter it in print that it means civilian people (non-combatants) were harmed or killed. I have to remind myself because the image I get is always one of a building that was just in the wrong place and got damaged or destroyed. It’s difficult for me to feel about the building I visualize (though buildings usually do have people in them) because it’s general. And I do see in the term that I’m supposed to consider the damage as unfortunate but perhaps necessary to a greater plan. I don’t get any of that justification of the injuries, deaths, and damage in the Cambridge definition. Both the visual image I imagine in my mind and the feelings and emotions brought up by the images are entirely different. And I have different moral feelings about them. The Cambridge definition, for me, leads me closer to a moral judgment that innocent deaths are “not right,” while the actual term “collateral damage” leads me closer to moral justification.

In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell gives even more powerful examples of euphemism’s power to obscure:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

In Orwell’s discussion, naming these actions euphemistically is done on purpose to ensure that no mental image can be called up in the mind. If there’s no mental image, then there’ll be no emotional reaction. If we don’t feel (perhaps because we don’t understand what the euphemisms actually mean), then it’s much harder to engage moral judgment about what’s being described.

That’s the power of a euphemism.

Perpetrators of genocide and mass killing themselves use euphemisms for their actions, not only to convince others, but to convince themselves and to make it easier for them to engage in perpetration. In Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, James Waller (2007) explains, “Perpetrators facilitate moral disengagement by using euphemistic language to make their extraordinary evil respectable, and in part, to reduce their personal responsibility for it” (p. 211). Here, using euphemisms allows the perpetrators to disengage morally from their own actions. Waller affirms the relationship between language and moral engagement and disengagement.

In the Nazi memo made famous in rhetoric by Steven B. Katz (1992) in “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust,” that I discussed a bit in my dehumanization blogpost, Jewish people (referred to as “the load,” “pieces,” and “merchandise”) are “processed” by “the operation” (p. 255-256). (What’s really going on is that Jewish people are being loaded onto vans and killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. The memo is actually a proposal to make technical changes to “improve” the vans as killing machines.) Processing and operation are standard terms for industrial processes, but in this context these become euphemisms for murder.

In States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen (2001) explains that during the Holocaust “concrete terms like ‘murder’ and ‘killing’ were seldom used” and “correspondence was subject to rigid language rules” (p. 80-81). Euphemistic labeling of immoral actions was vital in the Holocaust.

Torture, too, is regularly referred to euphemistically by perpetrators. Cohen (2001) notes that under the Argentinian junta, the army chief, Roberto Violo, set out regulations about language use with “Terms not to be Used” and “Terms to be Used” set out in a column in a 380-page secret manual (p.107).

Cohen (2001) continues:

The best-known torture euphemisms were the “intensive interrogations” used by the British in Northern Ireland; the “special procedures”: the “long-established police procedures,” “services” and “excesses” used by the French in Algeria; the methods of “moderate physical pressure” used by Israelis against Palestinian detainees. (p.107)

Waller (2007) explains why perpetrators use euphemisms, even among themselves:  “[E]uphemisms give perpetrators a discourse in which extraordinarily evil need no longer be experienced, or even perceived, as extraordinary evil.  As they live within their euphemistic labels, and use them with each other, perpetrators become bound to a psychologically safe realm of dissociation, disavowal, and emotional distance” (p. 212). Waller affirms that perpetrators don’t fully believe in these euphemistic labels, but their use keeps perpetrators from questioning the morality of their actions.

Cohen (2001) plainly states, “The function of euphemistic labels and jargon is to mask, sanitize, and confer respectability” (p.107). He explains that they are a kind of denial where the raw facts or actions are not denied, but “are given a different meaning from what seems apparent to others” (p. 7). “By changing words, by euphemism, by technical jargon, the observer disputes the cognitive meaning given to an event and re-allocates it to another class of event” (p. 8). This other “class of event” is one that calls up few emotions that lead to moral questioning.

Euphemisms abound in our world: in polite discussion, in politics, at work (where there are no problems, only issues), perhaps even within ourselves (though it’s particularly difficult to identify if you use them in your own self-talk, I find). Consider spending some time paying attention to euphemisms in your world. Where do they show up? Does your workplace use or encourage euphemisms  — perhaps when something fails? Does your workplace – or another organization you’re part of – demand that certain terms be used while others are forbidden? Once you start looking, you’ll probably see euphemisms everywhere. But the most important question is why. Is this euphemism to be polite or considerate? Or is it to avoid any moral implications or culpability?

If you do use euphemisms that have moral implications, can you try to associate that word with more accurate images (as I try to do with collateral damage)?

Feel free to let me know what euphemisms you see in your world in the comments. Are these euphemisms benign and humane in your opinion? Or are they troublesome because they lead listeners to ignore something important because they evoke an inaccurate image? Or no image at all?


Cohen, S. (2001). States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. MA: Polity Press.

Katz, S.B. (1992). “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust.” College English 54.3 (March), pp.255-275.

Waller, J. (2007). Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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