A few minutes after Elon Musk’s big rocket blasted off last month, momentary public befuddlement ensued when engineers from his SpaceX Corp. tweeted that the craft had experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”
To put it more clearly, it exploded.
The euphemism was tailor-made for the late comedian George Carlin, known for puncturing bloated verbiage. But he can’t mock this one, because in 2008 he passed away.
Or more candidly, as he would prefer I phrase it: He’s dead.
In one of Carlin’s famous calls for truth in language, he traced the terms for combat stress from the vivid “shell shock” of World War I to the “battle fatigue” of World War II, the “operational exhaustion” of Korea, and the detached “post-traumatic stress disorder” of Vietnam.
“The pain of it is completely buried under jargon,” Carlin complained of the linguistic evolution, adding, “If we had still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time.”
As for those who called Janet Jackson’s anatomical spill at the 2004 Super Bowl a “wardrobe malfunction,” Carlin grumbled, “They are too timid to speak honestly about a singer’s breast.”
You wonder what he’d say about that airport runway near-miss in Hawaii earlier this year attributed to “loss of situational awareness.”
Forever piqued by flabby stand-ins for the straightforward, Carlin once asked, “How is it possible to have a civil war?”
He had a point in targeting the sanitized terminology of war, where “enhanced interrogation techniques” can stand in for torture, “boots on the ground” for young people sacrificed in battle, and “collateral damage” for the killing of civilians.
British author George Orwell, who in his dystopian novel 1984 created the euphemism-fueled language of “Newspeak,” once asserted that when it comes to political circumlocution, “speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”
And speaking of politics, Orwell, who today would never be seen under a MAGA cap, also decried acronyms as rhetorical devices to obscure evil intent behind them.
The English seem particularly adept at euphemism, with a notable example coming from the venerable Winston Churchill himself. He once termed a parliamentary adversary a “purveyor of terminological inexactitudes.”
“Liar” was a term discouraged by the speaker in the House of Commons, but Churchill’s massaging of the term was considered within the bounds of gentility. That bore out the opinion of another Englishman, raconteur Quentin Crisp, who once noted that “Euphemisms are unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne.”
The New York Times once took a bewildering look at what Parliament could abide in unsoftened speech. It reported that while “jackass” was unacceptable in criticizing a member, “goose” was permissible. Also verboten were “cheeky young pup” and “impertinent puppy,” but “half-wit “was acceptable.
The Times reported that some MP’s were better than others at slipping insults past the speaker, with future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli high among them. He was once admonished by the speaker for declaring that half the government’s cabinet members were asses.
The ultimate politician, Disraeli nimbly uncorked some of that aforementioned diplomatic cologne, begging the speaker’s pardon and asserting for the record that “Half the cabinet are not asses.”
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org), a frequent contributor, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.