Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “Words on the Move.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
You know the United States is being run by a gang of idiots when they not only try to use language in nefariously Orwellian fashion, but can’t even get that right.
I refer to the idea that children separated abruptly and indefinitely from their parents at the US-Mexico border are being housed in so-called “tender age facilities.” The purpose of such language is to mask the cruel detention of these bewildered children in internment compounds, done in an effort to penalize their parents for attempting to enter America, some illegally.
The Trump administration’s motivation for this quest to euphemize is hardly obscure. The moral horror of tearing small children away from their powerless parents is so patent and chilling that it cuts across all of us, regardless of political stripe or temperament. The very few among us, as in Trump’s minions and writerly defenders, who can apparently neither imagine themselves in the position of the children or the parents subjected to such heartless abuse, stand out now as unfeeling and cynical to an almost staggering degree (which is saying a lot given the amorality of the Trumpians thus far). On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order that he said was “about keeping families together,” but it’s unclear what that will look like.
And historically, euphemization has often been a pragmatic way to step around negative associations many may have with a policy, in a quest to do good while changing minds. In the 1930s, amid the near-pitiless opposition to government payments even to widows, the term “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” was an artful one, sidestepping the financial aspect of the matter with the general term “aid,” for example. And the term has required constant replacement, as opposition to what some consider merely “the dole” settles upon the old term and renders it into a near slur. “Home relief” and “welfare” were early replacements, today being replaced by “cash assistance,” which will surely require renewal before long.
In this example, euphemism served what most would regard as a noble purpose, in helping welfare go down more smoothly with the general populace. Cavils about welfare today are largely about its extent and administration: to most of us, the America in which there was no government-sponsored welfare at all seems backward and harsh.
This kind of euphemism becomes more sinister when applied to matters horrific. Think for instance of the nakedly manipulative use of language in George Orwell’s 1949 novel, “1984,” and Orwell’s observation in the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” that “in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” amid which, “where there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.”
Thus a term such as “tender age” – tender traditionally associated with 1) romance and 2) attending to children, and also a word faintly precious, antique, and therefore somewhat distancing us from what is being referred to. The Trumpians’ goal is to mask the horror of what they are doing with a terminology smelling of baby powder and strained pears. Here, however, is where we confront the breathtaking obtuseness of this President and anyone working in his service.
The sin here is triple-layered. First is the fact that this policy would be allowed at all by people who purportedly harbor the human quality known as conscience. Second is the fact that they would try to paper over what they are doing with a euphemism. One thinks of when slum clearance – the razing of poor communities and scattering of their residents in order to build highways and commercial centers – was retitled “urban renewal.” And then third is that, whereas it usually takes such euphemisms at least a generation to need changing, we have seen “tender care facility” become a sick joke within the space of a mere few days.
Here is an administration both nefarious and inept, combining an absence of compassion with a thickness of tongue. One couldn’t write it better that this adminstration is the source of a term sounding as if it were ripped straight out of “1984” – “alternative facts” – only to see it, too, deep-sixed by ridicule within hours of its floating by Kellyanne Conway.
There is, just perhaps, a silver lining in all of this. Many fear that the Trump administration is misusing language in ways that will quietly sucker the American public into going along with their punitive, authoritarian agenda. However, it would appear that this administration is so giftless with language – from “alternative facts” through “covfefe,” typo-riddled memos, and an inaugural address of index-card length and on to “tender age facility” – that it lacks the rhetorical power to deceive. Twelve-year-olds can be a nightmare, but they can usually only get so much past us.