Has there ever been a better — or worse — year for euphemisms than this one?
Racist, xenophobic shitbirds are diagnosed with cultural anxiety. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer refers to concentration camps as Holocaust centers. United Airlines bloodily yanks a passenger off a plane, an atrocity described as re-accommodation. All these terms prosper under the drivel-soaked umbrella of Kellyanne Conway’s brilliant/scary coinage: alternative facts.
This ongoing euph-ageddon is why I’m finally writing about George Carlin, my favorite comedian. 2017 is like a George Carlin nightmare, and his voice is missed so much. There has never been a stronger opponent of euphemistic twaddle.
I can’t pretend to guess what Carlin’s Best Joke Ever might be. His body of comedy is preposterously rich and deep, including apocalyptic rants, classic sports comparisons, and silly musings about the word dingleberry. But I can make a case for his Most Relevant Bit Ever: the shellshock dissertation. This look at euphemisms is one of the most timely and timeless lessons from Professor Carlin.
After a few comments about the American propensity for “soft language” that keeps reality at a comfortable distance, Carlin starts slicing open Uncle Sam:
“There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum, can’t take any more input. The nervous system has either snapped or is about to snap. In the first world war, that condition was called shellshock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables: shellshock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was seventy years ago.”
How better to begin an argument about soft language than with a demonstration of hard language? Before dissecting drivel, Carlin shows how language can convey reality rather than smother it under a pillow of bullshit. But here comes the bullshit:
“Then a whole generation went by and the second world war came along, and the very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. Shellshock! Battle fatigue.”
Here Carlin introduces what I call the Carlin principle: the more syllables, the less truth. The mound of syllabic horseshit got a little bit higher with the preposterous-sounding battle fatigue. Any term that sounds so similar to boutique shouldn’t be allowed near a discussion of veterans. The next stop in this history lesson is:
“…Korea, 1950. Madison Avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.”
The horse cookies are piling higher as Carlin sneaks in another brilliant point: we’re not just distancing ourselves from reality with this jibber-jabber, we’re dehumanizing people who need our help. Carlin finishes with the most needless of our many needless wars:
“…the war in Vietnam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ll bet you if we’d have still been calling it shellshock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll betcha that. I’ll betcha that.”
Since I’m a smug elite snowflake, I’ve spent a lot of time in school. Out of all the classes and teachers, many of which were great, I can’t remember learning anything as specifically and powerfully as I learned about euphemisms from this bit. Before hearing it, I probably had a vague grasp of euphemism. After this rant, I understood the concept completely, including its absurdities and dangers. I put Carlin-ology to use on a regular basis, looking at a euphemism every two weeks for the Boston Globe, and writing a monthly column about euphemisms for Visual Thesaurus since 2008. With my tiny matchsticks, I try to carry the Carlin torch.
Even if Carlin hadn’t provided hours of other immortal comedy, this bit alone would entitle him to a black belt in bullshit dispelling. Carlin gave comedians, writers, and citizens the night-vision glasses needed to see clearly in the Buffalo Bill’s basement that is America.
As Carlin put it, “Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It’s as simple as that.”
In Carlin we trust.