18

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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    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
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    A better example might be the usage of "terrorist" and "freedom fighter", depending on view point the same person can be deemed one or the other. – KillingTime Oct 29 '19 at 7:21

25 Answers 25

24

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.

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  • 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
38

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

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26

A euphemism is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant.
Wikipedia

Here is an example usage from thinkprogress.org where I’ve highlighted some relevant parts.

The Washington Post described evidence of the use of insects, waterboarding, mock burials, sleep deprivation, and “rectal feeding” described in the so-called “torture report” as “severe tactics.” The Wall Street Journal called the behavior “rough treatment,” and NPR used the official euphemism, “enhanced interrogation.” The New York Times opted to “recalibrate its policy” and use the word “torture” to describe, as its executive editor Dean Baquet put it, “incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.” This framework closely mirrors the one put forth by the Convention Against Torture, which defines torture as, “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.’’ But many media organizations have not applied this binding definition to the brutalities described in the Senate Intelligence Committee report. Some have argued that by using euphemistic terms instead of calling torture “torture,” the media minimizes its horrifying realities.

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23

"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.

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12

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.

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11

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

bull·shit

ˈbo͝olˌSHit/

vulgar slang

verb

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
9

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

words or statements that are intentionally ambiguous or misleading.

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8

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.

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8

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

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8

Not sure, but this might work -

Sugarcoating is one possibility -- (for example) if a book is "sugar-coating" teenage drinking, it is taking something negative and adding a superficial positive sheen. Merriam-Webster:

to talk about or describe (something) in a way that makes it seem more pleasant or acceptable than it is

(Merriam-Webster)


Glamorizing -- to glamorize is to take something that is neutral, or maybe negative, and imbue it with more of a glamorous aspect than it might deserve. Oxford:

Make (something) seem glamorous or desirable, especially spuriously so

(Oxford)

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7

Circumlocution?

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

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4

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
4

One word that is used is legitimize about which Collins says

To legitimize something, especially something bad, means to officially allow it, approve it, or make it seem acceptable.

The last part, "make it seem acceptable" is the use here, such as their example

Images which glorify violence and cruelty, serve to legitimize such behaviour.

Also seen as "legitimise" (BrE), and "legitimatize" (AmE).

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3

Quoting this answer to a related question:

George Orwell, in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, used the terms doublethink (the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct) and Newspeak (a controlled language of restricted grammar and limited vocabulary, meant to limit the freedom of thought). These two have been combined to form the term doublespeak (frequently incorrectly attributed to Orwell's 1984) meaning "language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words."

George Orwell first wrote about this type of use of language for political purposes in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Political consultant Frank Luntz, who by his own account was heavily influenced by reading Politics and The English Language, has in recent times become closely associated with the strategy of methodically crafting vocabularies for political purposes. Here are some examples of political neologisms attributed to him:

  • Death tax (instead of estate tax)
  • Climate change (instead of global warming)
  • Government takeover (of healthcare)
  • Energy exploration (instead of oil drilling)

Some of these examples work in the opposite way of what you are asking for though, making something look less neutral and acceptable.

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2

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

MORE EXAMPLE SENTENCES

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'.

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2

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.

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  • 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
2

Reframe

1.place (a picture or photograph) in a new frame.(not the def. we are talking about)

2.frame or express (words or a concept or plan) differently. "I reframed my question"

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    This term also works the other way around. You can reframe something mild as something bad. – Mike Oct 29 '19 at 20:50
2

cosmeticize

according to merriam-webster:

to make (something unpleasant or ugly) superficially attractive

Originally, its use was often literal, with the meaning "to apply a cosmetic to," but today it is often used figuratively

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1

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."

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  • 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
1

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

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1

Dissemble:

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

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  • 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
1

A dog whistle. According to Wikipedia:

Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different, or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The analogy is to a dog whistle, whose ultrasonic tone is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans.

According to Cambridge Dictionary:

a remark, speech, advertisement, etc. by a politician that is intended to be understood by a particular group, especially one with feelings of racism or hatred, without actually expressing these feelings

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0

twist somebody's words

weather for the better or worse.

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-2

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
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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".

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