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Chris DeMuth Jr. is the founder of Rangeley Capital LLC. Rangeley is an investment firm that focuses on event driven, value-oriented investment opportunities. Rangeley Capital and his value investing forum, Sifting the World (StW), search the world for misplaced bets. Rangeley exploits them for... More
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  • Do Euphemisms Help? 8 comments
    Dec 10, 2013 3:07 PM

    He who must not be named/Voldemort

    Do Euphemisms Help? When there is a useful, descriptive word that means what one intends to communicate, is it helpful to replace it with convoluted, indirect words in order to help the feelings of the listener? Some examples of frequently euphemized words that have fallen into some level of disrepute:

    • Black
    • Boy
    • Bum
    • Dead
    • Dumped
    • Fat
    • Girl
    • Fired
    • Man
    • Poor
    • Rich
    • Slum
    • White

    These are each a single syllable and mean precisely what they are intended to communicate. There is little wrong with them judged by reason or efficiency. When someone stops being alive, they are dead. Depending upon the amount of melanin produced by melanocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis, one might be called either black or white. Lots of money? Rich. Little or none? Poor. Your employer is done with you? Fired. Able bodied man of working age who does not support his children? Bum. I don't see any problems conveying their meaning.

    The problem is with empathy. They can be construed as insensitive, especially to the young. Is this true and is it important? I put this to readers as an open question because I am on weak grounds in terms of answering. I zealously focus on being rational and efficient, but have never been as good at being empathetic and sensitive. There is a cost to avoiding direct language, but is there a durable benefit?

    One potential weakness is that the studied avoidance of direct language implies some deep power in such words. Modern American culture is deeply entranced by a certain anti-snobbery snobbery in which people must pretend to not even notice the kinds of differences that we are supposed to respect. This extends to patent dishonesty. Such failure to use readily available words also infantilizes the listener. It implies that he might spontaneously combust were some truth spoken.

    If a listener knows a truth and knows that you know a truth, is it still important to pretend that a relevant and useful truth goes unspoken? Should we play pretend games with adults of sound mind to protect their feelings? Maybe. But maybe there is a catharsis in unadulterated reason and efficiency. Maybe people are better and stronger than we are giving them credit for. If we want to acknowledge the importance of both respect and reality, then perhaps both causes could be better served by plain language.

    Voldemort, Voldemort, Voldemort.

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Comments (8)
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  • Terrier Investing
    , contributor
    Comments (585) | Send Message
    What's wrong with boy, girl, and man? Didn't realize they had any negative connotations.
    10 Dec 2013, 03:37 PM Reply Like
  • Chris DeMuth Jr.
    , contributor
    Comments (11443) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » Even some hymns and prayers have eliminated "man" in favor of "people". "Girl" has been largely replaced with "women" even for teenagers. References to "boys" are typically scrubbed and replaced with "boys and girls".
    10 Dec 2013, 03:45 PM Reply Like
  • TimeOnTarget
    , contributor
    Comments (3655) | Send Message
    I prefer the term "wood" instead of "dead." When one thinks of "wood" one thinks of either the product resulting from killing trees or of Natalie Wood, both of which are still and lifeless. Using the term "wood" instead of "dead" helps the listener more readily understand the nature of the state being discussed: This effort at enhancing communication makes the speaker much more empathetic.


    And "fat" is singularly insensitive. I prefer the phrase "of the hefty persuasion."


    Now if you will excuse me, I'm off to encourage my Congressman to spend more money on the underserved . . . .
    10 Dec 2013, 03:38 PM Reply Like
  • Aharon Levy
    , contributor
    Comments (135) | Send Message
    Again, words play a role here. If you frame the argument as, "Is a convoluted and confused phrase better than a simple word?" you get one answer. If you ask, "Is an inoffensive word better than an inoffensive one?" you may well get a different answer.


    See Noah Sweat's famous 1952 "whiskey speech" (apologies for the long quote):


    "If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.


    But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.


    This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise."
    11 Dec 2013, 07:56 PM Reply Like
  • TimeOnTarget
    , contributor
    Comments (3655) | Send Message
    O.K. -- I've got to add two of my favorite euphemisms which, strangely, both involve Teddy Kennedy.


    As you probably remember, Kennedy got kicked out of Harvard for cheating on a Spanish exam (or having a friend take it for him). Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when Kennedy was in the Senate, he corrected a fellow Senator's pronunciation of a Spanish name. That Senator paused, then said something to the effect of "Begging the Senator's pardon: I had forgotten he was a Spanish scholar of some renown."


    The second one involved some pictures of Kennedy going down on top of a pretty amazingly nice looking set of legs in a small boat-- that was the picture that appeared in GQ, along with a picture and quote from one of my favorite politicians ever-- Howell Heflin. I didn't want to misquote this one, so I looked it up on the internet. It took me to a page that was called something like "Classic Rush" and Rush's account of it is virtually identical to the story that I recall being in GQ.


    RUSH: What happened was -- this is back in the late eighties, I think -- Senator Kennedy is vacationing off the coast of the south of France and he's got a young nubile, very limber and flexible young woman with him, scantily clad in a nice bikini. We know this because paparazzi were taking pictures from neighboring boats, and the New York Daily News published the pictures, and there were a series of four pictures. The first picture shows them cavorting out there on the boat. The second picture shows us the scantily clad, nubile, very flexible and limber young woman diving in the water off the edge of the boat. The next picture showed Senator Kennedy jumping in after her -- which was a first for Senator Kennedy to go in the water after a woman -- and then the last picture showed them back in the boat making... uh, "having intimacies," let's say. The pictures made the rounds, and they showed them to Howell Heflin, a Senator from Alabama. He was a huge guy, and he looked at the picture and said (rare Howell Heflin impression), "Well, I do declare! Ha! Why, it do look to me like Senator Kennedy done changed his position on offshore drilling."


    There is also an account of this story in the Wikipedia article on Howell Heflin.



    You guys are probably too young to remember him, but he was a classic. I actually miss the collegiality that used to exist across party lines and between liberal and conservatives. Now there is so much more rancor.


    One refreshing thing I did see not too long back was Bill O'Reilly on The Today Show with Jon Stewart. Pretty much diametrically opposed political viewpoints, but they were just having a great old time giving each other grief--all in totally good fun. Just amazingly refreshing to see.
    19 Dec 2013, 02:30 AM Reply Like
  • sheldond
    , contributor
    Comments (1456) | Send Message


    I appreciate your thoughts and agree generally. I think euphemisms work better in literature except in regards to your off hand remark regarding black or white as merely a difference of melatonin. The issue with black as a classification is the historical precedent of calling someone black when


    A) except in rare cases "black" people are rarely black but instead varying shades of brown...or how can someone be called a black albino...white people are not actually white except my sister I am more peach


    B) a person with a white parent and a black parent is automatically "black" and if they married a "white" person and had kids their children would still be classified as "black" and so on down the line


    I find African American a pretty ridiculous term in general as well because not everyone with darker skin is A: American or B: has any connection to Africa


    Euphemisms do allow some subtlety and communication over those ill equipped to recognize the subtle nuances of language. (See what I did there) think of it as a secret code for social spies


    Demographic trends also show an increasingly multiethnic populace what should we call them. In regards to descriptions, I typically use more specific terms like caramel complexioned, light brown, dark brown, ruddy, peach, yellow undertones and avoid the whole black, white dichotomy not because of hyper sensitivity but because of accuracy.I understand that this might likely not matter to you in your daily life.


    As a peach man with a caramel wife and some golden children, I just though I would share. Your comments seem fueled by a desire to quell politically correct drivel which I appreciate. I also think your argument begs certain assumptions that need to be examined. I hope I have provided some food for thought and a unique perspective on where I believe that particular conversation on race and classification should go in the 21st century.


    All the Best,




    16 Oct 2015, 09:31 AM Reply Like
  • Chris DeMuth Jr.
    , contributor
    Comments (11443) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » Terrific, terrific comment, sheldond. Thank you.
    16 Oct 2015, 09:34 AM Reply Like
  • sheldond
    , contributor
    Comments (1456) | Send Message
    For full disclosure I do use both the terms black and white as racial identifiers because sometimes that's the easiest way to communicate and I don't want to confuse the under 50%.


    16 Oct 2015, 09:48 AM Reply Like
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