Almost in another life, twenty-some years ago, to support my habit of going to graduate school I worked as a ramp service worker for Eastern Airlines. It was a good job. I worked with a bunch of young, hard working, conscientious people. The job involved hard physical labor, but most of the men and women, like me, had college degrees.
We directed airplanes to their parking spot on the runway, checked the oil, de-iced the planes in the winter, and otherwise serviced the aircraft during the few brief minutes they were on the ground. We also unloaded and loaded cargo, including passengers’ luggage, traveling animals, air freight, and the U.S. mail.
When our employers wanted to emphasize to us how important our job was, they called us by our official title, Ramp Service Workers. When they wanted to remind the public that we were overpaid, they called us baggage handlers.
We had a lot of camaraderie among the workforce. I remember the song, “I Was a Highwayman” by Johnny Cash, Chris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. We improvised our own version, “I Was a Rampman.”
We would work hard for an hour or so at a time while a dozen or more aircraft were at the gates. On the evening shift, though, there was usually at least an hour of free time between rounds of flights. We had to be ready to respond to any urgent needs, but otherwise were free to entertain ourselves as we pleased. There was a large public break room with a television, tables, and comfortable chairs, and a sink to wash one’s hands after servicing aircraft. I used some of this time to keep up with my studies. I taught myself Latin at KCI.
One day a pilot and the flight attendants came into the break room. The pilot asked me if there was a place he could wash his hands, and I pointed to the sink. He leaned toward me and said, “I mean, I need to use the restroom.”
Oops! I had missed a euphemism. Euphemisms are polite ways of speaking about things that are embarrassing, unpleasant, or private. Normally we use euphemisms to refer to death, sex, and private bodily functions. Euphemisms are handy for those awkward situations where we have a need to refer to such matters without unduly offending or disturbing anyone.
But euphemisms are also used by politicians to obscure the truth.
My kids liked the late comedian Mitch Hedberg, and they went to see him in one of his last performances before his untimely death. One of his jokes I liked was about catch-and-release fishing. He said, “They don’t want to eat the fish, they just want to make it late for something.”
I don’t know why, but this joke makes me think of the current euphemistic use of the words, detain and detainee. Somehow being a detainee sounds nicer than being a prisoner. Detainees are even entertained by waterboarding, a procedure evidently so innocent that our current attorney general can’t call it torture.
I understand that politicians have to use euphemisms when the truth would hurt them. But don’t you think that when journalists adopt their reality-evading jargon, they become complicit in deceiving the public?