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Wall Street Doublespeak: The Lipstick on the Pig


When euphemisms mask bailouts and bad behavior.

The late George Carlin was brilliant at analyzing hypocrisies, particularly those perpetrated by language: He had a particular aversion to those dubious phrases meant to soften brutal realities.

In his 1990 special, Doin' It Again, Carlin chronicled the reinvention of the term "shell shock," first coined during World War I. After undergoing several transformations -- "battle fatigue," "operational exhaustion," "battlefield stress" -- it's now referred to as "post-traumatic stress disorder," one of our more toothless modern-day euphemisms. Carlin cautioned that such doublespeak actually blinds us to the truth, and comes at great expense to both the listener and the thing described.

And in these shaky financial times -- when executives and government officials are defending their every questionable action with increasingly flowery language -- much has been put at risk. Business doublespeak has moved beyond its benign manifestations (calling a telemarketer a Senior Inside Sales Representative, for example) into a far more deceptive, illusory realm.

Take the job market, for example. Rising unemployment rates haven't exactly been the most attractive elephant in the room. Employers are wary of attracting bad press and raising the ire of former employees. Losing your job security isn't a bad thing - it merely allows you more "job flexibility." And "getting fired" or "being laid off" simply don't happen any more - the company merely undergoes "downsizing."

In Britain, workers who suddenly find themselves tossed out on the street are called "redundancies" - and it's hard to say whether that's better or worse than being downsized.

Of course, when a business or government attempts to sell the public on something that severely affects their wallets, the doublespeak ceases to be effective. For example: An immediate and unprecedented public outcry rose up against the government's recent $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. No problem: The bailout was hastily refigured as a "rescue package."

For once, the American public saw the pig beneath the lipstick.

Once the spotlight was turned on a number of dubious business practices -- and the delicate euphemisms used to describe them -- every phrase was suddenly suspect. While "partial nationalization" and "too big to fail" were bandied about, nothing garnered more attention than everyone's favorite buzzword: "deregulation." This term -- which refers to the highly controversial process of reducing or removing governmental oversight -- can no longer be taken at face value. With countless articles and op-eds decrying Wall Street's "deregulation," doublespeak is no longer able to conceal what it intends to conceal.

In a few years' time, it's likely we'll find a suitably deceptive new phrase.

It's important to remember that business doublespeak isn't the same as, say, the language of political correctness. Though PC terms will always have their detractors, they're intended to minimize offenses between people, on the level of personal relationships. Euphemisms on the corporate level, however, are much more dangerous. They eliminate transparency, confuse the public and obscure fraudulent practices.

Or should I just call them "irregularities?"
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