Political dysphemisms

James A. Landau <JJJRLandau@netscape.com> JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM
Mon Aug 17 15:20:45 UTC 2009

On 16 Aug 2009 18:12:58 Zulu plus 0200 Julia Achenbach <julia.achenbach at UNI-OLDENBURG.DE
wrote from German-speaking Zulu-plus-2 land:

"I would suggest that you browse through political speeches. They are full
of dysphemisms (and of course numerous other stylistic devices). And
thanks to the election not being too long ago, there are still a tone of
them on the internet."

to which Arnold Zwicky <zwicky at STANFORD.EDU> replied (incorrectly, I believe)

"what "tone" looks like here is an orthographic compromise between the
British spelling TONNE and the American spelling TON.  nothing
eggcornish about it at all, i'd suppose."

and Julia Achenbach then replied "I blended the spellings of the German word 'Tonne' and the English word 'ton'."

I was under the impression that "ton" referred to the avoirdupois measure of 2,000 pounds (also called a "short ton", sometimes written "ston") whereas "tonne" (in both German and English) referred to the metric measure of 1,000 kilograms (approximately 2,200 avoirdupois pounds).  A "tone" therefore would be 2,100 pounds.

It might be significant that Julia Achenbach uses the British convention of single quotes rather than the American convention of double quotes.


Damien Hall wrote

"The fact that _nutter_ with that meaning isn't common in AmE meant that it
was below the radar of the Philadelphia _Metro_ headline-writer who came up
with 'Nutter endorses Clinton' during the Democratic primaries. I lived in
Philadelphia at the time: how I laughed."

"below the radar" is less than accurate.  Mayor Nutter is both good copy and, in my opinion, quite a good mayor; anyone in the Delaware Valley (such as me, out in Atlantic City) would interpret that headline as referring to the mayor, not some random idiot.  In other words, below the radar of most Delaware Valley readers.  (However, one expects the Columbia Review of Journalism to have published that headline in its regular collection of goofy headlines).


On Sun, 16 Aug 2009 16:49:15 Zulu minus 0400 Alison Murie <sagehen7470 at ATT.NET> (soon to be groundhog7470 at ATT.NET) wrote:

On Aug 16, 2009, at 11:25 AM, Mark Peters wrote:

> I'm writing about politically motivated dysphemisms this week: terms
> like death panel, death tax, and terrorist fist jab. I'm sure I'm
> missing a lot. Any suggestions?
> Mark
Perhaps too obvious to mention: collateral damage (killed civilians).
Congressional Quarterly would probably yield a bushel in no time!

Since becoming widely publicized during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, "collateral damage" has taken on a life of its own.  Searching Google News on "collateral damage" yields the following examples:

Lehman courts battle may cause collateral damage
The Australian - Bryan Frith - ‎Aug 5, 2009‎
THE jurisdictional tug-of-war continues in relation to a landmark court action on behalf of Australian investors seeking the return of more than $100 ...

Collateral Damage: BlackBerry's UberTwitter Takes a Dive
Phone Plus - ‎Aug 6, 2009‎
Twitter users are not having a great day. Especially if they're BlackBerry aficionados too. Thursday afternoon it became apparent that UberTwitter, ...

Human Face : Bad bananas and collateral damage / Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
Inquirer.net - Ceres P. Doyo - ‎Aug 12, 2009‎
... advocates here might just raise a howl and expose the real cost of these bananas in terms of collateral damage on human lives and the environment. ...

The Fight Between Inflation and Deflation is Over!
The Market Oracle - ‎22 hours ago‎
Let's assume the total collateral damage of the banking crisis turns out to be $5 trillion. Yes, that's a huge hit – roughly half the output of our economy ...

Unintended Collateral Damage Of Racist Remarks
The Moderate Voice - ‎Jul 29, 2009‎
I normally don't pay much attention when high-profile conservatives such as Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin label President Obama a racist for sparking the ...


On Sun, 16 Aug 2009 18:31:35 Zulu minus 0400 Doug Harris <cats22 at STNY.RR.COM> suggested: smart bombs

No, this is not a euphemism.  "smart bombs" (first used, not very sucessfully, in World War II) can be guided to their target after being released from the airplane that dropped them.  The antonym is "dumb bombs" which once released from the airplane lands wherever gravity and wind dictates.

If "smart bomb" is a euphemism, then what is the term that it avoids?

Most likely these usages of "smart" and "dumb" come from the computer world, in which a machine that has its own internal computer and can be made to take actions not dictated by the computer it is attached to is "smart" and one which lacks internal computing power and is a slave to the computer it is attached to is "dumb".  This usage is no longer common, now that everyone uses PC's, Macs, etc. to communicate with the Internet and the older "dumb terminals" are museum pieces.

If you want a military euphemism: "surgical precision" (smart bombs are accurate, but not *that* accurate).


Would the following rather odd claim from the New York Times be a euphemism?

"White House officials say the president has not abandoned the idea of a pure government plan, a central feature of the legislation moving through the House. But Ms. Sebelius’s comments did seem to open the door, and at least one Democrat close to the White House said the administration was well aware that, with moderate Senate Democrats opposed to the idea of a public plan, Mr. Obama might have to give up on the notion to get a bill through.

“The president is going to continue to try to persuade everyone of the great value of having a true public plan,” said this Democrat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid discussing strategy publicly."


On Sun, 16 Aug 2009 18:42:46 in the highly popular Zulu minus 0400 Bonnie Taylor-Blake <taylor-blake at NC.RR.COM> quoted


MEADVILLE, Franklin co.
September 26, 1840.

"Dear Sir:  The Old Soldier carries the full swing in this county.  The
Democrats are making a clean sweep here in old Franklin, and the log cabin
and Tippecanoe Club are running into the ground in our section.  Hard cider
and the shaking of coon skins, and the rattling of gourds wont do, for we
wear tar on our heels and drink corn whisky out of a *chunk bottle* --
Whiggery can't win in these diggings."

[From *The Mississippian*, Jackson, Miss., 9 October 1840, Front Page,
Column 2; via the 19th-Century U.S. Newspapers database.]

Whether Meadville, Mississippi's "we wear tar on our heels" 1) signifies
Scots-Irish heritage (by alluding to a long-ago practice of smearing tar on
one's heels), 2) somehow describes Democrats, 3) has anything at all to do
with people working with tar, or 4) indicates something else entirely, is
unclear to me.

I doubt "tar" means "drunken" because there is a clear contrast made between the Whigs (who are described as drinking hard cider) and the Democrats (who are described as drinking corn whistkey).  There is no suggestion that either side is drunk; the quotation merely specifies preferences in alcohol.

The "tar on our heels" seems to be used, not in contradistinction to drinking hard cider (that is done by the reference to corn whiskey) but rather to distinguish Democrats' behavior from the shaking of coon skins and rattling of gourds performed by the Whigs.

"Tar on our heels" could refer to stubbornness (as later North Carolinians claimed) or it could refer to something else that distinguishs Democrats from coon skins and gourds.  Since there were plenty of Scots-Irish on the frontier, I can't imagine that it refers to Scots-Irish ancestry.  Apparently it refers to something that people from Franklin County can boast of that is not one of the frontier virtues the Whigs ascribed to William Henry Harrison.

           James A. Landau
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