For any who feared that the art of euphemism was dying in this new age of Unvarnished Candor and Startling Frankness, I have reassuring news: people are as accomplished as ever at talking around the nasty truth. It's just that they're doing it in different ways now.
Take the matter of the contemporary teen- ager who is revealed to have been intimate with a couple of dozen partners. Just a few years back, such a youngster probably would have been called "promiscuous," or, more tolerantly, "affection-starved" or "troubled."
But all those words carry with them the suggestion of disapproval in some way or another of the child's behavior. The person doing the describing is guilty of being "judgmental," which may be the most grievous of all present-day sins. So today's youngster with the many sweethearts is euphemistically and nearly universally called "sexually active." (The fuddy-duddies will want to know what a less amorous adolescent is to be called -- "sexually passive"?)
Or consider the euphemism from the West Coast to describe those youngish waiters or waitresses who, with good-natured indifference and blank, toothy smiles, take our food orders and then good-naturedly forget or lose them. These people are, let it be noted, pleasantly disengaged and never hostile. In another time they might have been called careless, dull-witted or lazy. But this is 1985, and the almost approving description for such conduct is "laid-back."
Every public school has at least one little nuisance who disrupts class, gets bad grades and is a certified hoodlum. Such a bad apple was once called a troublemaker and sent home. Today he is more likely to be described as an "underachiever" and possibly "hyperactive" as well, descriptions that are not only nonjudgmental but make it almost impossible to get him suspended from school.
But to be honest, euphemism wouldn't survive if it had to rely on this sort of innovation by advanced thinkers. The true and enduring strength of the art of evasive speaking continues to lie with the old standbys: death and taxes.
Consider the "terrorists' sneak attack," a nasty thing when it's directed against us or our allies. But what if it's one of our friends doing it? Simple: just call it a "daring commando raid."
In fact, war consumes euphemisms as it does tax dollars and gasoline. During Vietnam, "defoliation" was the term used by some for the dropping of incendiary bombs and chemical agents to destroy the jungle cover. For those unfamiliar with that definition, the term sounds not much more harmful than a New England community's efforts to rid itself of poison ivy or Dutch elm disease.
As for taxes, just consider that under Ronld Reagan enormous budget deficits have been billed as "revenue shortfalls," while tax increases have been made apparently less painful by presenting them as "revenue enhancers." And now, when some of the fatter cats in our midst feel threatened by the real possibility that some of their most cherished tax loopholes (uh, sorry, make that "creatively crafted deductions"), will be closed, truly inventive euphemisms are showing up.
The best I've seen is "capital formation." Sounds almost patriotic, like a maneuver that the 82nd Airborne might have mastered. What it is, primarily, is some guy's justification for paying taxes at a lower rate on his big income than schoolteachers and steelworkers pay on their small ones.
When next you hear some earnest captain of commerce in a $600 suit singing the advantages to the nation of "capital formation," just think of it as "a word from our sponsors," which is kind of a nice euphemism for a commercial.