Whilst wielding a broom this morning, lulled by the soporific swish of corn bristles on concrete floor, my thoughts turned to words and phrases and how we, in our desire to soften reality, give new names and terms for old roles and events.
Euphemisms surround us. Garbage collectors become sanitation engineers. Cleaning ladies, or maids, become housekeepers to name just a couple. By changing the name we have, I think, actually lessened the importance of those jobs. Maids or ‘cleaners’, in this age of equality, are not housekeepers. Anyone who has watched Downtown Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs knows the scullery maid does not run the household finances. They do however help many keep homes clean and tidy. They are the unseen backdrop to clean office buildings, public lavatories, transportation; the list is endless. Collecting our rubbish is a necessary and important part of keeping our streets and cities free from pestilence and vermin, and therefore healthier. Garbage collectors are not though engineers.
We are so hung up on making people feel good about themselves that by giving new titles to old roles we are in fact demeaning their actual job. To be a good cleaner takes time, a knowledge of what works best where, and an element of pride in leaving a room looking better than when it was first entered. To be a good garbage collector an element of pride is needed to bend over to pick up that stray can. Pride in doing a job well, no matter what the job.
I struggle to understand much of the world’s zeal for encouraging all in a university education, and the subsequent railing at the system when plumbers, carpenters, gardeners and so on are often immigrants from less prosperous countries. Not everyone is suited to university. Would we not do better by improving the quality of trade schools and encouraging apprenticeships? Not everyone, no matter how impressive the degree, gets a job. The world needs people with manual skills and common sense just as much as those engineers of ingenuity, and lawyers, doctors, teachers; they all contribute to the running of our lives. We put an inordinate amount of pressure on our children by expecting them to go to university, even if they have no bent for it.
Not content to just rename roles, we rename events. Normally the unpleasant ones. Euphemisms again at play. No wonder those learning English get confused. “I lost my mother” is very different to “my mother died”. Death is death; there is nothing easy about it, so why the sugar coating? There is no easy way to tell a person a loved one has died, but dignify that death by calling it what it is. “She slipped away,” does not help the pain of the bereaved. Even worse the phrase, “she’s gone to a better place”, which is most presumptuous. How do we know that?
Living in Holland many years ago I was somewhat taken aback at being told by a Dutch friend, I was looking fat. It was true but her delivery could have been blunted, or better yet my weight gain ignored. In Thailand the propensity to call a spade a spade is legendary but I was surprised on first arriving to live there, how many lithe Thais were called ‘Uann’. I found out that at some stage they may have had a covering of puppy plump, it could have been twenty years earlier but he or she was destined to be called, “Fat” for the remainder of their life.
Using the correct words does not lessen the need for tact but it does mean speaking plainly. If we don’t, particularly when dealing with death, people might consider us careless, rather like Lady Bracknell.
And now I must get back to sweeping but let’s give our children the space to be either a tradesman or a doctor. Let’s drop euphemisms but use tact while delivering the truth. Let’s employ a cleaner and give him, or her, the respect deserved; and let’s leave ambiguity to the politicians.