Euphemisms and war

What do politicians mean when they talk about 'regimes', 'enemy combatants' or 'friendly fire'? The language of war is often full of euphemisms. A euphemism is the substitution of unpleasant word with a more pleasant one. Euphemisms are used for a variety of topics: ‘sleeping with’ means ‘having sex’, ‘passed away’ means ‘died’, and ‘vertically-challenged’ means ‘short’. Put simply, euphemisms allow people to talk about taboos more comfortably. War is one such taboo, as talking about killing, death and destruction is challenging. 

  1. Watch the video of George Carlin below. And discuss your answers to the following questions:

    • How has the language of war evolved over the decades?

    • How does Carlin argue that the language of war determines how we understand war and treat victims of war?

    • How does Carlin show how 'euphemisms' are related to jargon and even antynyms? What does this reveal about human nature?

  2. How good is your understanding of war-related euphemisms? Match the euphemisms in the left column with their actual meaning in the right column.

  3. euphemisms actual meaning

    1. abuse
    2. casualty
    3. campaign
    4. collateral damage
    5. defend defend
    6. engage
    7. enhanced interrogation techniques
    8. friendly fire
    9. ghost detainees
    10. homeland
    11. liberation
    12. neutralise
    13. relocation centre
    14. surge
    15. surgical strike
    16. take out

    a) accidental attacks on allies
    b) attack by guided missiles
    c) occupation
    d) kill
    e) death or injury of a soldier
    f) escalation of war
    g) prison camp
    h) torture
    i) war
    j) attack the enemy head on
    k) torture
    l) prisoners of war who are not protected by the Geneva Conventions
    m) United States of America
    n) kill
    o) attack
    p) accidental deaths of civilians 

    1. k/h
    2. e
    3. i
    4. p
    5. o
    6. j
    7. k/h
    8. a
    9. l
    10. m
    11. c
    12. d/n
    13. g
    14. f
    15. b
    16. d/n

  4. Text 1 is a transcript from an interview with Barack Obama in 2014 when he speaking as President of the United States about military strikes in Syria and Iraq. Read the text carefully, as a class, and stop to discuss every word or phrase in bold. What is he say, and what does he mean? How is he using euphemisms to justify war?

  5. CHUCK TODD: Mr. President, welcome back to your 12th appearance on Meet the Press. 

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Great to see you.

    CHUCK TODD: Thanks for doing this. We start with a very basic question. Are you preparing the country to go back to war?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from ISIL. Keep in mind that this is something that we know how to do. We've been dealing with terrorist threats for quite some time. This administration has systematically dismantled Al Qaeda in the FATA. We just yesterday announced the fact that we had taken out the top leader of Al-Shabaab the terrorist-- organization in Somalia. ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria. But the good news is coming back from the most recent NATO meeting is the entire international community understands that this is something that has to be dealt with. So what I have done over the last several months is, first and foremost, make sure that we got eyes on the problem, that we shifted resources, intelligence, reconnaissance. We did an assessment on the ground. The second step was to make sure that we protected American personnel, our embassies, our consulates. That included taking air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives. The next phase is now to start going on some offense. We have to get an Iraqi government in place. And I'm optimistic that next week, we should be able to get that done. And I will then meet with congressional leaders on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I'll make a speech and describe what our game plan's going to be going forward. But this is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops. This is not the equivalent of the Iraq war. What this is is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we've been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years. And the good news is is that because of American leadership, we have I believe, a broad-based coalition internationally and regionally to be able to deal with the problem.

    CHUCK TODD: What are you asking of the American people on Wednesday? You say you're giving a speech. That's the type of thing, I assume, you're preparing the country for something. What are you asking of them? What do you want--what do you want the American people to receive?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well more than that, I just want the American people to understand the nature of the threat and how we're going to deal with it and to have confidence that we'll be able to deal with it.

    CHUCK TODD: You realize you're giving that speech the day before the 13th anniversary of 9/11.

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: But right. And I--I want everybody to understand that we have not seen any immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL. That's not what this is about. What it's about is an organization that, if allowed to control significant amounts of territory, to amass more resources, more arms to attract more foreign fighters, including from areas like Europe, who have Europeans who have visas and then can travel to the United States unimpeded, that over time, that can be a serious threat to the homeland. In-- in the more immediate term, it's an imm-- it's a threat to friends, partners in the region and is causing all kinds of hardship. And we've seen the savagery not just in terms of how they dealt with the two Americans that had been taken hostage but the killing of thousands of innocents in-- in Iraq thousands of innocents in Syria, the kidnapping of women the complete disruption of entire villages. So what I'm going to be ask-- asking the American people to understand is, number one, this is a serious threat. Number two, we have the capacity to deal with it. Here's how we're going to deal with it. I am going to be asking Congress to make sure that they understand and support what our plan is. And it's going to require some resources, I suspect, above what we are currently doing in the region--

    CHUCK TODD: This is asking Congress for a vote, an authorization of your strategy. This is not a what-- what does that mean?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I-- I-- I'm confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people. And I'm always going to do what's necessary to protect the American people. But I do think it's important for Congress to understand what the plan is, to have buy in, to debate it. And that's why we've been consulting with Congress throughout. And this speech will allow Congress, I think, to understand very clearly and very specifically what it is that we are doing but also what we're not doing. We're not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops. We are going to be as part of an international coalition, carrying out air strikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops. We are going to be helping to put together a plan for them, so that they can start retaking territory that ISIL had taken over. We are going to have to work with our regional partners to attract back Sunni tribes that may have felt that they had no connection to a Baghdad government that was ignoring their grievances. And so there's going to be an economic elementto this. There's going to be a political element to it. There's going to be a military element to it. And what I want people to understand, though, is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL. We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat 'em.

  6. This lesson is about one stylistic feature, euphemisms. The opposite of a euphemism is a dysphemism. Dysphemisms make things sound worse than they really are. Watch the video below and compare how these two US Presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, describe the killings of different leaders, Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. What makes this video so funny? Is it the difference between euphemisms and dysphemisms? Or are there other stylistic and structural differences? Discuss.

  7. What other kinds of stylistic features are used when presidents and prime ministers talk about going to war? Check out the lesson called 'Battle cries' to find other features of war-time speeches.

For an HL Essay you may want to explore the rhetoric of a president or prime minister who makes the case for going to war. For example, you can write your 'line of inquiry' about Johnson and Vietnam, Churchill and Europe or Bush and Iraq. Through good research you should be able to find multiples texts by your president / prime minister of choice to constitute a 'body of work'.

Last modified: Thursday, 12 March 2020, 9:12 AM