Dawn of the Death Panel

The power of the euphemism's evil twin You can say a lot of things about Sarah Palin, but she deserves some kind of medal of honor from the...

The power of the euphemism's evil twin

You can say a lot of things about Sarah Palin, but she deserves some kind of medal of honor from the collective word-watchers of America for her contributions to the English language.

As soon as she was announced as John McCain's vice-presidential candidate last year, the term hockey mom was everywhere, as well as less enduring amusements such as VPILF. She made us think about pit bulls with lipstick for the very first time, becoming so associated with this common cosmetic that Barack Obama's use of the idiom lipstick on a pig was a minor brouhaha. Her name became an eponym, as pundits wondered if future candidates would be Palinized, and when her marriage was sailing on smoother ice floes, she enjoyed calling her hubby the first dude. Finally, her resignation speech brought an old idiom to new fame "Only dead fish go with the flow."

Did I say "finally"? My mistake.

The latest in the flood of terms and idioms that have been associated with the former governor is death panel, which Palin coined on her Facebook page on August 7, when she wrote, "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's ‘death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

Since then, Palin's junk has been thoroughly debunked. As Christi Parsons and Andrew Zajac reported in the Los Angeles Times, the so-called death panels were actually "...designed to allow Medicare to pay doctors who counsel patients about planning for end-of-life decisions. The consultations would be voluntary and would provide information about living wills, healthcare proxies, pain medication and hospice." So death was involved, but the idea of a merciless council dispensing life and death was not quite the idea. In Salon, former secretary of labor Robert Reich called Palin's Facebook follies a "cruel lie," a "cruel distortion," and a "deliberate lie," which pretty much sums it up-except for one intriguing linguistic aspect amidst the cruelty and deceit: Death panel is a dysphemism, the excessive, oversharing, super-blunt sibling of the euphemism.

When you hear that the International Space Station's space toilet is called the Waste & Hygiene Compartment, or that cheating on your spouse is now called hiking the Appalachian trail, you can be sure euphemisms are on the march, protecting our fragile ears, brains, and children. But dysphemisms stroll in the opposite direction, a direction the Oxford English Dictionary defines as: "The substitution of an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression for a pleasant or inoffensive one."

Slang is full of dysphemism. Note the TMI-ish quality of muffin top (flesh hanging over low-rider jeans), brain bucket (motorcycle helmet), coffin nail (cigarette), and Jesus juice (white wine). The aggressive child-free movement has been a prolific producer of distasteful dysphemisms such as sperm ‘n' egg omelet, hump dumpling, crotchfruit, and crib lizard, to go along with the older terms rugrat and house ape.

In Keith Allan and Kate Burridge's book Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon, they highlight the political appeal of dysphemisms, which are so handy "...when talking about one's opponents, things one wishes to show disapproval of, and things one wishes to be seen to downgrade. They are therefore characteristic of political groups and cliques talking about their opponents". Political dysphemisms operate as the kind of political frames George Lakoff has become the world's most famous linguist talking about.

As the Visual Thesaurus Editor Ben Zimmer pointed out on the American Dialect Society listserv, euphemisms and dysphemisms are both routinely used to fog the truth, depending on what the truth is: "It's all framing these days-and the most successful framers are simultaneously euphemizers and dysphemizers. Thus Frank Luntz euphemizes with energy exploration (vs. oil drilling) and electronic intercepts (vs. eavesdropping), and dysphemizes with death tax (vs. estate tax) and government takeover (vs. government-run health care)." More on Republican wordsmith Luntz-including why rabbit is more dysphemic than bunny, apparently-here.

Also on ADS, Historical Dictionary of American Slang Editor Jonathan Lighter said, "My understanding of dysphemism may be too narrow, but I think of it as a? deprecatory or insulting name for some thing that is essentially neutral." Death panel certainly fits that definition, as does the ADS Most Outrageous term of 2008, terrorist fist jab-a Fox News concoction for the common fist bump, as shared by Barack and Michelle Obama. A recent issue of the linguistics journal American Speech rounded up the history of different words for fist-bumping, including dap, closed-fist high five, fist pound, and knuckle buckle (I've seen fist bash elsewhere) but few can compare with terrorist fist jab for its political, utterly preposterous, dysphemic spin.

So, when you need to smear your enemies, rally the base, terrify the elderly, or just force the public to view an issue through mud-covered glasses, you can't beat a good dysphemism. However, I prefer to use them for harmless, bipartisan pursuits, like describing my tasteful banana hammock.


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