Has it ever occurred to you that the term “senior citizen” has a somewhat more pleasant connotation to it than, for instance, “old person”? The same could perhaps be said regarding the term “differently abled” versus “disabled people”.

The Cambridge dictionary defines euphemism as “a word or phrase used to avoid saying an unpleasant or offensive word.” The examples given earlier are among numerous other euphemisms that have been used throughout history – be it for political, social, medical or business objectives.

Essentially, euphemism is a form of crafting language in order to give a positive connotation to certain phrases, and in some ways, make them convincing or acceptable. For this reason, we often hear the term “collateral damage” used to refer to civilian casualties in warfare, and “climate change” as a substitute term for global warming.

The significance of language in affecting perception

Euphemism is in fact very much a part of the medical and healthcare sphere, as they can somehow make certain terms appear more “palatable” to patients, their families, caregivers and the public. The term “palliative care” or “hospice care”, for instance, is often associated with dying or loss of hope for living. This has given rise to several dialogues on whether this term should be replaced with another name.

A qualitative study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) which explores the perception towards the term “palliative care”, led to a few important findings concerning the negative initial impressions associated with it. The term “palliative care” is viewed as stigmatising, whereas the alternative name “supportive care” is considered more favourable to the patients and caregivers. Another key point in the study is that the stigma associated with the term “palliative care” may be a barrier to a timely referral, which in turn could deprive patients and caregivers of the full benefits of palliative care.

The use of language mechanisms to influence the mental set and perception of the audience or listener was stated by Dr Akopova Asya from the Department of the English Language of the Humanitarian Faculties, South Federal University, Russia, in a 2013 article published in the International Journal of Cognitive Research in Science, Engineering and Education. According to Dr Asya, linguistics manipulation is based upon mechanisms that compel us to perceive verbal messages uncritically and facilitate creation of illusions and misperceptions, impacting the listener’s emotions and making him accomplish actions which are advantageous for the speaker. One common type of linguistic manipulation is known as “rational linguistic manipulation”, where the persuader would present convincing facts and arguments that impact people’s consciousness.

The ongoing debate: “assisted dying” vs. “euthanasia”

Usage of the term “euthanasia” or “assisted suicide” often conjures a negative and troubling perception among patients and the public.
Usage of the term “euthanasia” or “assisted suicide” often conjures a negative and troubling perception among patients and the public.

Observations made on the Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) Bill recently debated by members of the Victorian parliament in Australia, demonstrate how the choice of words reflect the different stances held by the supporters and opponents of the bill. Those who supported the Bill were inclined to use the phrase “assisted dying” throughout the debate. On the contrary, the opponents preferred the terms “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” in their arguments – words that often conjure a troubling perception among patients, their families and the public alike.

This battle of lexicons also happened in the case of the 2016 ballot initiative in Colorado, US which would decide whether doctors would be allowed to write life-ending prescriptions for terminally ill patients – this happened before the legislation was eventually passed. While those in favour of the initiative had used phrases such as “dying with dignity” or “medical aid in dying”, opponents of the law were inclined to call it “physician-assisted suicide”, instead.

According to The Denver Post, this divisive language has also caused news organisations to consider the most objective term to use to describe the procedure. One TV station, KUSA-Channel 9 decided that they would refer to it as “assisted suicide”, conforming to the Oxford definition of “the action of killing oneself intentionally”. Others opted to use “medical aid in dying”, stating that the meaning conveyed by the term “suicide” is beyond the dictionary definition.

Whether euphemisms should be viewed as sugar-coating bitter pills or simply a way of using unobtrusive language remains a subject of debate. Nonetheless, the statement made by David Woods, former editor-in-chief of the CMAJ, could perhaps serve as a reality check concerning the use of euphemism: “The danger in all this – in medicine and elsewhere – is that euphemism leads to obscurity and misunderstanding. Surely, we and our language are matured enough nowadays to call a spade, a spade – not a horticultural implement.” MIMS

Read more:
End-of-life issues should be openly addressed
Legalising euthanasia: The ongoing debate between doctors
CA: Access to assisted dying puts the mentally ill at risk