The United States of Euphemism

George Orwell

George Orwell

Judging by the local newspaper that serves the rural area of Pennsylvania where I live, hunters no longer shoot and kill deer: they harvest them. “Harvest” is the latest euphemism of choice for killing, and it’s applied not just to the culling of the deer herd but also to the killing of bears, bobcats, and other predators.

In his speech on national security before the American Enterprise Institute on May 21st, former Vice President Dick Cheney complained of the “emergence of euphemisms [under the Obama administration] that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and the terrorist enemy.” Instead of being properly at war with terrorists and other “killers and would-be mass murderers,” we were now involved, Cheney dismissively noted, in so-called “overseas contingency operations,” a catch-all term adopted by the Obama administration in place of the previous administration’s “war on terror.”

Yet for all of Cheney’s posturing about the allegedly milquetoast euphemisms of Obama, he persisted in repeatedly invoking “enhanced interrogation” for methods of torture (such as waterboarding) that have been previously prosecuted as war crimes by the United States.

But the former vice president did put his finger on a problem: Our collective acquiescence in the temporizing – the terrorizing, even – of our language. Mr. Cheney himself continues to stare unblinkingly at euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation methods,” which cloak the reality of bodies being slammed against walls and water being pored down people’s throats. As a country, our eyes glaze over when we see the repetition of terms like “collateral damage,” an overused military euphemism that obscures the reality of innocents blown to bits or babies buried under rubble.

Perhaps our temporizing began right after World War II, when the Department of War was folded under and rebranded as the Department of Defense. Coincidentally, just before this occurred, George Orwell penned his classic essay, “The Politics of the English Language” (1946). It remains telling:

[P]olitical language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

This last point is essential, and it also explains the purpose of the phrase “enhanced interrogation.” After all, how many Americans in 2002 would have favored a “war on terror” if our government plainly admitted it was using torture to terrorize suspects?

As President Obama famously said during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, “Words matter.” But, following the lead of the former vice president, Obama also made the political choice of citing “enhanced interrogation techniques” four times in his speech on national security on May 21st, though at first reference he did qualify the phrase. In the same speech, Obama demonstrated his own linguistic dexterity, coining the phrase “prolonged detention” to cloak his proposal of indefinite imprisonment of “enemy combatants” without trial.

Prolonged detention: It sounds quaint, like a few days of after-school punishment for misbehaving in class, instead of what it could become – open-ended confinement to a gulag.

Of course, we all recognize that we live in an age of public relations, propaganda, and advertising. Post-modernism as well as deconstruction, moreover, seemingly support the malleability of meaning and the lability of language. Even so, whether you’re Dick Cheney or Barack Obama, changing the words does not change the reality. Instead, our linguistic gymnastics not only tortures our language: It cripples our thinking and even pollutes our souls.

The most blatant historical example of this pollution occurred in Nazi Germany, as brilliantly exposed by Victor Klemperer in The Language of the Third Reich. Klemperer shows, for example, how the word “fanatical” was redefined under Nazi rule from a pejorative to a desirable trait. This and similar linguistic barbarisms, Klemperer concluded, acted as “Poison[,] which you drink unawares and which has its effect.”

Let’s stop drinking the poison. Let’s stop unthinking or dishonest references to “enhanced interrogation” or for that matter to “prolonged detention” and “overseas contingency operations.” Let’s speak plainly – if we must speak at all – of torture and of killing – whether during hunting season in the forests and fields of Pennsylvania or during combat in the plains and mountains of Afghanistan.

At least then we won’t be hiding behind the false camouflage of euphemisms to justify our blood sports – and our even bloodier wars.

William J. Astore

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught for six years at the Air Force Academy. A TomDispatch regular, he currently teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology and is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005), among other works. He may be reached at

Reprinted with permission from the History News Network.


  1. Bill Astore says

    Dear Must Mention: You make a valid point. People have in the past referred to the deer harvest. But the usage still rings oddly in my ears, especially when applied to bobcats, bears, and other (scarce) predators. In the area where I live, I often see “Hunter Bob harvested a bobcat” used interchangeably in the newspaper with “Hunter Bob shot an 8-point trophy buck.” I talked to two local hunters; one said he despised the term “harvested,” seeing it as a euphemism; another one said he thought it was an acceptable term, but one that was used much more frequently beginning in the 1970s in reaction to anti-hunting propaganda.

    I’ve studied the roles and methods of hunting in pre-Civil War America, and I never came across “harvested” used in the sense of “shot and killed.” Instead, hunting was categorized as a field sport or a blood sport. I used to be an avid reader of “Field and Stream” and “Outdoor Life” and never remember “harvested” substituted for hunting and shooting.

    In a way, I think the term “harvest” does an injustice to hunters. Hunting usually requires considerable skill, whereas “harvest” to me suggests a mechanical and repetitive process.

    Thanks again for your comment — it has made me think more deeply about “harvest” and its history and meaning in this context.

    Best wishes,
    Bill Astore

  2. must mention says

    Colonel Astore, in one of your examples, you are mistaken. Regarding the term harvest and it’s usage as you describe, it is a farming term applied to a crop, whether it is fruits, timber, or livestock. When applied to deer, the term harvest is meant to bring venison to market or to the table. So, when you imply that there is deception when using the term harvest to kill livestock animals then you are wrong. It’s not a euphemism to use harvest when describing killing animals for meat to market or to the table. It’s a fact.

    My guess is that you weren’t raised ‘country’ or else you’d know this.

    p.s. I don’t think that most hunters use the term harvest when applied to their prey, but the term harvest is still appropriate when applied to deer used for meat.
    p.p.s Using the term harvest in this context has been common for centuries, and is not “the latest euphemism of choice for killing”, as you describe it.
    p.p.p.s. My real reason for replying is to point out that you may have missed an important aspect, which is perspective.

  3. James Dehnert Sr says

    I have noticed that every person who has agreed to be water boarded on TV to see how bad it really is has confirmed that it is torture.

    We all need to keep in mind that these folks have has a kill switch, usually something to drop, that tells person doing the water boarding to stop. In these cases the water is slowly shaken out of a 1 gallon jug on too a clean white towel, held tight across the volunteers face.

    The people that America are (lets hope with our new President we can now use the past tense) torturing do not get a kill switch. The water being poured on them probably comes on buckets or a hose. Most importantly, they don not get to go home after being tortured. Until the horrible truth comes out, I believe that these people probably get to suffer through several water boarding sessions in a week. In some case they may get several sessions in a day. Multiply that times the length of their stay and roll in the other methods of torture that are being employed, and you begin to realize the magnitude of this crime against humanity.

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