Here’s a scary thought: Given that some use George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language” as a guidebook for obfuscation rather than a linguistic how-not-to, there might some politicians, corporate types and just plain folks who mistake the newly published “Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language” for an actual dictionary and not the delicious satire it’s meant to be.
After all, as its subtitle suggests, “Spinglish” ($27.50; Blue Rider Press; 347 pages) could well be used for evil instead of good. Right there on the copyright page, next to its ISBN number, is its true purpose for existence: “1. English language – New words – Humor.” This is no surprise, given that the authors, Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, are National Lampoon magazine alums and well known for cracking wise.
But humor often eludes an irony-deficient populace, and books such as “Spinglish” sometimes result in unintended consequences, sort of like how Prohibition increased, not suppressed, the alcohol trade. Think it can’t happen? Go back to 1980, when “The Preppy Handbook,” meant to humorously deride preppies, instead was embraced by the sweater-tied-around-the-neck crowd and adopted as its bible.
We can only hope readers will dip into this glossary of euphemism and doublespeak merely for a healthy chortle and maybe, just maybe, come away with a renewed appreciation of and adherence to using the mot juste, even if you have to fall back on pretentious French phrases to do so.
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Still, it will be tempting for professional explainers and amateur apologists to engage in “terminological inexactitude” – lying, that is – with what the authors call deliberately deceptive euphemisms (“reality augmentation”), as opposed to seemingly harmless slang that spices up our oft-stodgy language.
An example Beard and Cerf supply: “Given the boot” is an idiomatically colorful way of saying someone was fired; “rightsizing” is purposely mendacious and reserves you a place in linguistic purgatory.
Humor often eludes an irony-deficient populace.
In the dictionary’s entertaining introduction – bet you’ve never before felt compelled to read a dictionary introduction? – the portmanteau “Spinglish” is defined as “our native tongue, transformed into a sophisticated method of judicious miscommunication through the use of careful word choice and the artful rephrasing and reframing of familiar terms.”
Careful word choice is almost always a wonderful thing as long as the vetted words aren’t meant to deceive or verbally anesthetize the public. Some examples, like “group home” in place of “orphanage,” are meant, perhaps, to spare the feelings of those who reside there. Same with using the phrase “outdoor citizen” for “homeless person.” But who are these delicate words really protecting, the orphans and homeless or we who don’t want to think such Dickensian settings still exist?
A full page is devoted to euphemisms for firing someone. You’ll laugh until you cry (especially if you’re on the receiving end) reading these doozies:
▪ “effectuate a workforce adjustment”
▪ “assign candidates to a mobility pool”
▪ “engage in workforce imbalance rectification”
▪ “optimize one’s consumer footprint across geographies”
▪ “realign one’s headcount”
▪ “involuntarily leisured”
▪ “make available to the industry”
Sadly, that’s just skimming off the top of the list. Examples of corporate sanitizing pepper the book. Beard and Cerf are so kind as to break down firing euphemisms into word forms, such as these verbs: “to Bangalore,” “to decruit,” “to outplace.” Some are just plain audacious, such as when a Duke University spokesman in 1982 made it “clear” that football coach Shirley “Red” Wilson was not being fired; rather, he was “not being asked to continue.”
Lest you think Spinglish terms are figments of the authors’ overactive minds (i.e., they made them up), the last 100 pages are devoted to real footnotes where examples appeared in the media.
Oh, yes, the media: It did not escape the Spinglish wrath. Here are two phrases and their real meanings:
▪ “reportedly: quite possibly not true”
▪ “noted authority: a term used by reporters to describe any news source who’s willing to return their phone calls.”