Euphemisms target benign nouns

By George Sipos

Originally published in Gulf Islands Driftwood

Who still remembers George Orwell and his essay Politics and the English Language? Or cares, for that matter.

His warnings about how totalitarianisms of both left and right manipulate language to deaden critical thought seem antique nowadays, the tilting of a mid 20th-century idealist against windmills that have long since vanished.

Well, have a look at a news piece in a recent issue of the Globe & Mail reporting on the controversy surrounding a proposal to build a 66-room hotel at Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park.

Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park, Source:

Maligne Lake, noted for having graced the back of the Canadian five dollar bill for many years and for having enchanted painter Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven, among others, currently allows visitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. only. The hotel proposal, which would open the area to round-the-clock stays, has elicited the strongly worded opposition of three former Parks Canada executives, who point out that the area is the home of an endangered caribou herd as well as grizzly bears and harlequin ducks, all of whom would be harmed by overnight accommodation.

The response of Harvey Sawler, spokesman for the property developer, is most interesting. He says of the former Parks Canada executives that they are “experts at reaching for the hot buttons, and they know the words ‘grizzly’ and ‘caribou’ are things that set off flares.”

He goes on to say that the executives “are a bit out of step with the Parks Canada that we know today, which is reaching much higher on the experiential side as opposed to just the preservationist and protectionist side.”

So simple nouns that name real animals in the real world, like “grizzlies” and “caribou” are politically charged, while a word like “experiential,” used as a euphemism here for “commercial,” is not?

What is particularly “experiential” about guests having dinner in a hotel, watching pay-TV in their nice rooms at night and flushing the water from their morning showers into the ecosystem? Enjoyable and commercially profitable, yes, but hardly serving to deepen visitors’ engagement with the unique environment of the Rockies.

And look at the words “preservationist” and “protectionist.” Values that “preserve’’ and “protect” wilderness are ones most of us naturally sympathize with. But any noun with an “-ist” on the end implies someone doctrinaire, obsessed and probably unsavoury, like an “arsonist” or a “bigamist” or, God help us, an “environmentalist.”

And thus does a simple concern about bears and ducks and caribou come to seem foolish and illegitimate next to high-faluting abstractions that sound more weighty, more credible and more serious, even if they are simply obfuscations to conceal profit-driven commercial goals.

On the basis of language alone I’ll take the grizzlies any day, and I bet Orwell would have too.

The writer is the soon-to-be retired executive director of ArtSpring and a much-published author.