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VIEW FROM WASHINGTON / ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT : Hi Senator! What's the Good Euphemism?

March 27, 1994|ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT | ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT writes about banking, health care and other national issues from The Times' Washington bureau

In Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," Humpty Dumpty tells Alice: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

Washington is full of Humpty Dumptys. These men and women prod and poke the language to avoid unpleasant realities. If you don't say what a thing really means, they figure, the voters won't get mad at you.

Each governmental department can generate wonderful illustrations of English under stress. The Pentagon, for instance, always avoids any hint of bloodshed or death when it talks about military matters. When you bomb civilians by mistake, it is "collateral damage." The super-killer nuclear missiles deployed in the 1980s were the "Peacekeepers."

When a contractor messes up and has to repay some money to the government on a tank or plane project gone bad, the official word is "consideration." Nothing so naked and tawdry as a refund.

Congress and banking regulators faced a crisis when hundreds of savings and loans failed in the 1980s. Government insurance protected deposits up to $100,000, an unbreakable pledge. So the legislators created an agency to pay off the depositors. A truthful name would have been something like, "The Department of Bail-Outs." Instead, they gave it a name to conjure up visions of a marble-pillared bank--the Resolution Trust Corp.

Everyone soon called it the RTC, and the agency's own reputation for clear speaking has been mixed at best. A business owner who struggled in vain for four years to get an RTC contract was told: "We've put your application in our 'nonpriority file.' "

But all these examples are minor league compared to the work of the geniuses who write the federal budget documents, regardless of political party.

"The politics of the budget are so difficult because nobody wants to call a spade a spade or admit to a tax increase or a spending increase," said Stan Collender, director of federal budget policy at the Price Waterhouse accounting firm.

"That is why we have all these euphemisms and budget sleight-of-hand," Collender said. N"Within minutes, people here in Washington who follow these things know what they are, but the regular voter--the ordinary citizen who doesn't follow it day to day--can be easily fooled."

President Reagan was swept into office as an enemy of big government and never wanted to admit when he was asking for higher taxes.

So, his budgeteers invented "revenue enhancement" as a substitute for the T-word. Their overly optimistic forecast of future revenues was called a "rosy scenario."

President Clinton is the mirror image of Reagan. "Where the Republicans never liked to admit to higher taxes, the Democrats have to find new ways to describe spending increases without admitting what they are doing," Collender noted.

"Investment" is the magic word for President Clinton. He has asked Congress for more money for Head Start, high-performance computing, mass transit, food inspections and water-treatment plants for rural areas. All these programs, with nothing in common, are lumped together on a long list of "investments" in the proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The President can get away with it, because there is no generally accepted definition of a government "investment." The Clintonites are like the Reaganites. "Things they find important they can justify in their own minds," said Collender, who first learned about euphemisms from a high school teacher who used the word party whenever he announced a test.

Winston Churchill became Britain's prime minister in 1940, after the Nazi armies had roared through Europe. His powerful use of the language became an inspiring weapon of war.

He told Parliament: "You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crimes. That is our policy."

If Churchill were speaking today in Washington, his words might come out like this: "Our objective is the employment of tactical weapons in all theaters of combat, backed by maximum effort supplemented by the impact of divine assistance, in order to achieve a successful outcome in suppressing completely the condign opposition."

Maybe it's not just to blame government for the disease of weak and obscure language. Business does it, too. After all, if my bosses don't like this column, the next time the company is "downsized," I might get "outplaced."

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