I have been in many scenarios where people try to obscure/reduce the intensity of a seemingly bad or immoral act using grammar. E.g. Assuming Thomas killed a dog, you could hear something like:

There's essentially nothing wrong about palliating the miserable life of a despondent being. If there was any issue here, I'd say it's not consulting a veterinary doctor first but I've come to understand that some people are just straightforward.

How does one react to the above mumbo jumbo? I think there are similar situations also found in law courts. What can this be referred to as? Grammatification, obscure tactics?

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    It sounds like argumentum verbosium also. – ermanen Oct 20 '14 at 2:22
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    When I read your title, I immediately set to thinking what sort of immoral acts might be committed with grammar. :) – tchrist Oct 20 '14 at 2:55
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    This discussion cannot be complete without a reference to Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language". – Beta Oct 20 '14 at 4:32
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    Many questions here start out that way. A single word to describe it might be helpful. – Canis Lupus Oct 20 '14 at 14:10
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    That's not obscuring things with grammar but obscuring with verbiage. Grammar is simply the set of "rules" that determine what is a "legal" sentence: it's what makes you say "Thomas killed a dog" rather than "Thomas dog kill". – David Richerby Oct 20 '14 at 14:41

17 Answers 17


Doublespeak seems to fit this example well. From Wikipedia:

Doublespeak is language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms (e.g., "downsizing" for layoffs, "servicing the target" for bombing), in which case it is primarily meant to make the truth sound more palatable. It may also refer to intentional ambiguity in language or to actual inversions of meaning (for example, naming a state of war "peace"). In such cases, doublespeak disguises the nature of the truth. Doublespeak is most closely associated with political language.

  • I think the word doublespeak is from George Orwell's book "1984"? – Volker Siegel Oct 21 '14 at 16:30
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    @VolkerSiegel: Almost but not quite. 1984 used doublethink (the ability to simultaneously believe two contradictory things) and Newspeak (the political language of the Party). Doublespeak seems to be a related, but later, coinage. – Nate Eldredge Oct 21 '14 at 16:49

While it's not limited to creating confusion about immoral acts, the term obfuscation can be used

Render obscure, unclear, or unintelligible: the spelling changes will deform some familiar words and obfuscate their etymological origins


"palliating the miserable life of a despondent being" is a 'euphemism' for "killing the dog".

Google says:

euphemism: a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.


I'd say the best description for this is a relatively new usage of the word "spin" when used to mean presenting the facts in a light most favorable to a preferred viewpoint.

It is commonly used in politics but seems quite appropriate here.

See Wiktionary where noun definition 3 is:

A favourable comment or interpretation intended to bias opinion on an otherwise unpleasant situation.


While I hate to be the vulgarian in the room, I feel like this is a great example of bullshitting.



vulgar slang


gerund or present participle: bullshitting

talk nonsense to (someone), typically to be misleading or deceptive.

While not talking complete nonsense, the intention is to obscure the true meaning behind flowery language.

As my dad always said, "if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit."

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    I think "bullshit" implies falsehoods are being told, which isn't what OP is looking for. – Blazemonger Oct 20 '14 at 16:12
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    @Blazemonger I agree that bullshit can mean patent falsehoods, but I think it also applies here, as well as to unnecessary language students pepper papers with to pad the length. – Digital Chris Oct 20 '14 at 17:56

While not a verb, I think weasel words describe your example pretty well.

words or statements that are intentionally ambiguous or misleading.


There are a lot of great answers here, and many of the words posted fit some or all of the example you gave, but I really think the word you're specifically looking for is equivocation, which comes from the Latin for "of equal voice" (also, of course it does.)

From google:

noun: equivocation; plural noun: equivocations

the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself; prevarication.

"I say this without equivocation"

Equivocation is also a type of logical fallacy, this link is to the wikipedia article for that specific meaning of the word, but it is outstandingly dry reading and should be visited only by those with a deep interest in sentential logic, or college freshman taking Intro Logic.


The first thing that came to my mind was 'whitewash'.

From dictionary.com

Noun: anything, as deceptive words or actions, used to cover up or gloss over faults, errors, or wrongdoings, or absolve a wrongdoer from blame



"the use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive."


I'd say that it's a form of obscurantism:

  • the practice of deliberately making things more confusing or complicated, so that people do not discover the truth* (MacMillan dictionary)

  • deliberate obscurity - an abstruse style (as in literature and art) characterized by deliberate vagueness (Wikipedia)

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    Using the word "obscurantism" is certainly a good way to obscure things. – Hot Licks Oct 20 '14 at 21:59

This is at least similar to, if not a form of, sugarcoating: the act of making an unappealing idea more palatable by directing attention away from its negative aspects and toward its positive or acceptable ones.

  • No, I'm sorry. Sugar coating is minimizing or deliberately ignoring the negative aspects of something. The speaker in the example leads the listener on a garden path but the meaning remains. Palliating the miserable life etc.= a dog was put down = a dog was killed. – Mari-Lou A Oct 23 '14 at 5:19
  • I didn't read the context. "Thomas killed a dog" is certainly different from "Palliating the miserable life of a despondent being". I have to edit your post in order to reverse my downvote. – Mari-Lou A Oct 23 '14 at 5:31

Not sure whether this entirely fits the bill but worth mentioning the British Conservative government's "Economical with the truth" which they genuinely used in some context a couple of decades ago. Also, Douglas Adams used the term "Clintonesque" with reference to Bill Clinton's, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

  • In some ways this is the opposite of economical with the truth: it's overly generous, adding more words where less would be truer... – GreenAsJade Oct 21 '14 at 0:02

I agree with obfuscation, but I'd add a qualifier: moral obfuscation.


Similar to 'whitewash', in American there's a verb snow

[VERB WITH OBJECT] North American informal Mislead or charm (someone) with elaborate and insincere words:

they would snow the public into believing that all was well


He used you people, played on your sympathy and thoroughly snowed you.

Then he snows her with rapid-fire comments and returns to the ‘you're forgiven’ angle.

She knew she ought to be furious; he hadn't exactly snowed her, but he'd taken advantage of a faith she didn't put in many people, of the memories of her childhood.

I think it means "obscure with verbiage" by being an analogy for a 'snow blizzard'.



To disguise or conceal one's true motives, feelings, intentions, or beliefs.

  • It is basic policy on all SE sites to always cite our sources. The definition appears to be taken from a reference, if that is the case, you need to clearly state where you found this quote. – Mari-Lou A Oct 23 '14 at 5:02

I'll add: Politicing Lawyering Marketing

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    I wouldn't use politicking, lawyering or marketing here, though they are related. To politic your way out would be to use platitudes; to lawyer would be to use technicalities; to market would be to highlight benefits and downplay negatives. – choster Oct 21 '14 at 0:42
  • Are you lawyering me? – KnightHawk Oct 21 '14 at 21:21
  • @choster Marketing is also about careful, selective wording. I could easily imagine the wording in OP's example being written by a PR professional for a press release about a dog-murdering public figure. The example even explicitly downplays negatives (ending life) and highlights "benefits" (the dog's life was "miserable"). – talrnu Oct 22 '14 at 13:27
  • While I completely agree that all three of my examples have their own specific uses, that is precisely why I have added them. As talrnu points out, marketing is about careful,selective wording, and so too are each of my examples. Each of them have their own specific contexts and do not generally apply universally, but if one where used in place of another, most people would still understand what was meant. – KnightHawk Oct 22 '14 at 14:30

Here in the UK we call it "spin". PR people, who make a career of "putting a spin on" bad things, are called "spin-doctors".

protected by tchrist Feb 22 '15 at 3:58

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