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Scholarly euphemisms

By Peter Curson - posted Friday, 4 October 2013


Fowler defined euphemism as the use of a mild or vague expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable use. Holder added that a further test was that the euphemism once meant, or still means, something else.

Euphemisms are now so widespread in our society that they have successfully invaded every aspect of our day-to-day lives. In a recent piece in the Sydney Morning Herald I briefly discussed how euphemisms had penetrated into various realms of the business and the real estate world and become an everyday and essential part of our language.

This current piece extends this and looks specifically at the scholarly world of academe as well as the general world of official report writing, where euphemistic expressions destined to soften, divert or deceive, have become commonplace and are to be widely encounted in much scientific and general report writing. In this context euphemisms are used as a means of diverting us from one truth and replacing it with another, one that is often highly varnished and more acceptable. Consider for example, the following phrase which is used extensively in social and medical research. "It has long been known", which really means – the author didn't have time or hasn't bothered to fully check his/her data. Or perhaps the following:- "of considerable practical and theoretical importance", i.e. it was interesting to the writer, or perhaps – the phrase " it has not been possible to provide a definitive answer to these questions" – meaning, the experiment didn't work or the author didn't manage to get hold of the original data.

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Regularly we also confront the phrase – "this paper also examines the effects of …", i.e. the original paper was too short so the author padded it out somewhat.

The academic and official report world of writing is simply replete with such phrases. Take for example, the following which regularly occur in such papers:-

"It is believed" -.i.e. the writer believes it (at least for the present publication).

"It is widely believed" – i.e. the writer and at least two others believe it.

"I have shown", i.e. The writer has managed to convince him/herself.

"It seems clear that much more research on this important topic is needed", i.e. the writer desperately needs to stay in his/her present job.

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"Hayden in his study has assessed most of the literature on the topic", i.e. the author hasn't bothered to look up any of the original studies.

" Considerable thanks are due to my Research Assistant John Smith and to my colleague Ron Jones", i.e. Smith did most of the work and Jones is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research or Head of the Ministry involved.

And the list goes on, with comments such as –

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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