Note: This article on euphemistic language was originally published on June 7, 2012. It has been slightly modified from its original version.
Does the term “sloppy microchips” turn you off? If so, maybe you’d prefer some euphemistic language. Ah, euphemisms. Those mild, indirect, and often vague substitutions for offensive, unattractive, or blunt words. They help us disguise language. But is that a good thing?
An article in The Economist details the advent of “sloppy” microchips, which tolerate errors while operating. The trick is in controlling when and where these errors occur. But in the end you have a smaller, faster microchip. It fits in tighter spaces and gobbles less energy. What’s not to like?
The problem is that sloppy microchips wouldn’t fly off the shelves. The name just doesn’t sound good. And researchers know it. So they’ve come up with a few other options:
- “inexact hardware”
- “probabilistic computing”
- “relaxed correctness”
- “relaxed liability”
The Problem with Euphemistic Language
People who use euphemisms usually have good intentions. Take the sentence When did his daughter pass away? It’s not as harsh as When did his daughter die? The same goes for Why were you laid off? It’s a kinder version of Why were you fired?
Need more examples of euphemistic language? How about “correctional facility” for prison, “the birds and the bees” for sexual intercourse, and “neutralize” for kill?
So what’s wrong with using euphemisms? Well, for a start, clarity can suffer. Comedian George Carlin made this point more brilliantly than I ever could.
In a now famous bit, he talks about the change in the term for an overload of the human nervous system brought on by intense stress (usually from combat). We now call it PTSD. (See video below.)
Okay, so sloppy microchips conserve power in a cell phone battery. Then why not call them “energy-efficient microchips”? Or “green microchips”? Either term would be clearer than “relaxed correctness.”
Using euphemisms is a kinder, gentler way of speaking. But it can make simple ideas harder.