Mean what you say, or say what you mean?

English language newspaper obituaries are the finest examples of euphemistic writing, a genre in which we are the world champions. Why? Because we don’t like to speak ill of the dead too overtly.

The obit code – telling the truth about the recently deceased without standing up at the funeral and saying ‘Actually, you know what…’ – came about because it is considered to be extremely bad manners to be anything other than positive about the attributes of the dearly departed. Encouragingly for scribblers, obit writing is a form that, done well, is up there with the best English writing of all time and will get one noticed.

Here are some classics:

Garrulous – overly and unbearably sociable

Ebullient and lively wit – told awful, often unseemly, jokes

Austere and reserved – joyless, dour, depressing and dull

Did not suffer fools gladly – foul tempered, permanently grumpy; an arse

Enjoyed female company – priapic sex pest

Notable vivacious – nymphomaniac

He/she lived life to the full – zero self-control of some, most or all physical appetites

Burdened by occasional irregularities in his/her private life – an intriguing list of possibilities. A conviction for indecent exposure perhaps? Rampant adulterer? Occasional kleptomania? Wouldn’t you like to know?

You can write whatever you wish to about dead people because they cannot sue you. It’s writing about the living that is fraught with legal difficulty.

Write that someone in the public eye is ‘… often thirsty …’ usually means she or he is no stranger to the bottle. Private Eye used to write ‘tired and emotional’ rather than hopelessly drunk. ‘Hands-on mentoring’ is newspaper code for sexual shenanigans while a ‘volatile personality’ means random and volcanic eruptions of bad temper.

The words ‘rumbustious’, ‘controversial’ and ‘questionable’ with reference to business behaviour mean that something illegal is almost certainly going on but is unlikely to be proven to the satisfaction of a court. Current examples might be  articles about Amazon’s, Apple’s and Google’s tax affairs.

Creative use of euphemism in content is not restricted to writing about the dead.

A civil servant who tells his minister that a decision would be ‘courageous’ means that his career will be damaged, possibly terminally, by it. ‘Adventurous’ means mad and unworkable. A frank discussion is a row and a robust exchange of views is a row with much shouting.

Euphemism is so ingrained in the English language that it is baffling to see it being misunderstood and blankly received by native born Brits. These include the rather odd people who feature on reality TV and miss the meaning of words such as ‘incidentally’(which means you clearly do not understand so I shall now explain this more simply to you). The phrase ‘with the greatest respect’, also often misunderstood, means you are so stupid that I have no idea how you can stand up and breathe at the same time; stop wasting my time. Go away.

It is helpful to understand this double-speak and to know where, and how, it is best used. When trying to spare feelings, it’s excusable. When it is blatant mendacity, it is not.

Mark Zuckerberg said, in explanation of the egregious censorship and algorithm-led news editing that Facebook recently carried out that it is a technology platform and not a publisher. He might have thought he was being euphemistic, but he was not.

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 14.54.26

It was a clear statement which events indicate may not be true, a view confirmed by COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 14.54.36

This ‘misunderstanding’ has been elegantly nailed by Peter Preston, a previous editor of the Guardian and by definition a man who understands very clearly how to use words as deftly as a Venetian assassin used a stiletto. He wrote in that paper this week:

“Facebook, though now the biggest carrier of digital news on Planet Earth, says it isn’t an editor or publisher, merely a humble platform. But now watch it change algorithms like any publisher in a jam. Watch it take editorial decisions, switching idiocy for sense. And watch it drain advertising revenue pretty voraciously from the news sites it carries. Dear Mark is part of our news world now. And he needs to be fully, intelligently engaged in it.”

When Facebook dies, can you imagine the obits?