Sweet Talk

We live in a euphemistic commercial age where “plain” chocolate just simply will not do

Counterpoints Language
Suggestive digestive: The plain chocolate variety is hard to find

Have you bought any chocolate digestives lately? If you have been looking for plain chocolate ones, rather than milk, you may have discovered that they are hard to find. What you will have found is dark chocolate digestives. “Plain” chocolate! Who could hope to sell such a thing in this day and age? “Dark” is what people want — biscuits full of mystery and romance and even, dare it be said, of sex. 

We are living in a new age of euphemisms, all working of course, just as before, to persuade us that something is a little better than what it really is. A more sinister one that has come into use lately is to be heard from firms trying to lend us money. What we are offered now is “flexible interest rates”. 

That “flexible” is quite subtle. It really just means “variable” — but everyone knows that “variable interest rates” are almost bound to go up. The phrase is a fairly honest warning that that might happen. 

But “flexible” — that sounds like something quite different. We associate the word with people or proposals that are not rigid, that will bend a little to please us or accommodate us. Who would not sooner have flexible rates than variable ones? But there is no difference. 

Estate agents have always been notorious for their inventive euphemisms. One much in use at the moment is “beautifully presented”, or even “superbly presented”. “A beautifully presented, spacious Victorian house” — what does it mean? Nothing. The only beautiful presentation is by the estate agent himself — and that is of no use when you find the house is a cheaply tarted-up ruin. 

In the poet D. J. Enright’s anthology of essays on euphemisms, wittily entitled Fair of Speech, David Pannick, now Lord Pannick QC, gives some examples of legal euphemisms used to seduce people. Barristers are always called “counsel”, says Pannick, which suggests they are friends or confidants, not just a professional lawyer. Their fees after the first day are called “refreshers” — cleverly implying a physical need for what is merely another financial transaction. 

As Enright says in his introduction, euphemisms may be fair of speech, but they are often “foul of meaning and dishonest in intent”. We can perhaps live without plain chocolate digestives — but all too often we still look in vain for plain speech.