Small Lies Are the Lubricant of Civilisation

The Economist has a priceless article on euphemisms, which correctly cites the British as masters of the craft:

British newspaper obituaries are a rich seam: nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, yet many enjoy a hint of the truth about the person who has “passed away”. A drunkard will be described as “convivial” or “cheery”. Unbearably garrulous is “sociable” or the dread “ebullient”; “lively wit” means a penchant for telling cruel and unfunny stories. “Austere” and “reserved” mean joyless and depressed. Someone with a foul temper “did not suffer fools gladly”. The priapic will have “enjoyed female company”; nymphomania is “notable vivacity”. Uncontrollable appetites of all sorts may earn the ultimate accolade: “He lived life to the full.”…[Others euphemisms include] “a confirmed bachelor” (a homosexual) and “burdened by occasional irregularities in his private life” (leaving the reader guessing whether the problem was indecent exposure, adultery or cross-dressing).

Among my British favorites is “bless him”, meaning that he’s an idiot. “After we introduced some complex new accounting software here at the firm we felt that Roger, bless him, should pursue other opportunities better suited to his abilities”.

And I love the way investigations of obviously guilty criminal suspects are described by British newsreaders, e.g., “100,000 pounds have gone missing from the Birmingham Central Bank. A man was seen leaving the bank carrying a large bag with the words ‘Birmingham Central Bank’ printed on it, in which there were 100,000 pounds. The man is now assisting police with their inquiry”.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.