Members Member Login
Not yet a member? Sign up now


The Power of Words

Catherine Richards

May 2020 | Article | EALTHY Blog | Pandemics

I suffer from selective word sensitivity syndrome, otherwise known as lexiphonia. Sufferers of the condition experience strong negative emotions for certain words – emotions that range from dislike right through to hatred. When I hear or read a word that I am sensitive to, I grimace as if in pain, I mutter something like ‘oh for (insert expletive) sake’ and, when particularly moved, I yell.

Before I get myself into trouble, you can close the medical dictionary. Lexiphonia, as far as I know, doesn’t exist. ( And if anyone reading this can tell me otherwise, I’d be glad to hear from you). This is a condition that you can’t have as it hasn’t been invented yet. Can conditions be invented? Hmm. More on that later.

Euphemism is a trigger for this non-condition of mine and that’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot of it about. ‘Euphemisms’ said Quentin Crisp (1985) ‘are unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne’ while Holder I(2008) in How Not to Say What You Mean: a Dictionary of Euphemisms refers to euphemism as ‘the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery and deceit’. (For an interesting article about the many uses of euphemism see Richard Nordquist’s piece.)

And yet, where would many people be without euphemism, when death is the topic? In our house, the news that someone has died is delivered plainly and simply: ‘X died this morning’ though I suspect our frankness in matters of death makes us unusual. For many people, such directness is less acceptable than ‘X passed/passed on/passed over/passed away this morning’. I believe that the latter is the form most used in the UK, while I hear all versions used by north Americans. I understand that these euphemisms function to soften and to protect and thus have an important communicative role. They’re perceived to be kinder than their more literal equivalents.

But are euphemisms for death appropriate in journalism? Should TV news readers use euphemism to report a death? Or medical professionals, when communicating with fellow medical professionals? I subscribe to an online publication written for GPs – family doctors. Once a week it pops into my inbox with interesting articles on common conditions (bona fide ones), and news of interest. Covid-19 related news has unsurprisingly featured a lot over the last couple of months. Imagine my surprise when I read the news of GP and healthcare worker deaths being reported with the euphemism ‘passed away’. This was not an announcement to the surgery receptionists but journalism in a professional publication. In my opinion, euphemism has no place in such a context.

In the very same article, I read the following sentence: ‘GPs killed by Covid-19!’ Ok –I’ll come clean: there was no exclamation mark. I added that, to complement the tabloid-vibe the headline was giving off. Can you be killed by a virus? Killed by a knife-wielding patient, ok. But killed by Covid-19? I don’t think so. While the euphemism was inappropriate, the choice of verb just seems wrong.

Tabloid headlines are designed to shock, to lure you in (and often seem to have little relation to the story that follows.) There seems to have been a fair amount of tabloid-style reporting during this pandemic, even from sources considered reputable. The Covid-19 virus has, at times, been imbued with characteristics not associated with other pathogens and the language used, along with images, have been the primary contributors to this. There are currently corpora of the language of Covid-19 being put together and investigated – I look forward to reading the results.

As language teachers and linguists, we spend more time than most considering words – so I’ll leave with one more puzzle to ponder. Is a vaccine invented or developed? I was taught, and thus have always taught, the latter. It appears that in the 21st century however, vaccines can now also be invented, and if you don’t believe me, do a quick internet search. What are your thoughts?