Update May 12, 2020
The role of linguistics in intercultural business communication
Metaphor, metonymy in the language of economics and business
Fischer,F., Göke, R., & Rainer, F. (2017). Metaphor, metonymy, and euphemism in the language of economics and business. In G. Mautner, F. Rainer, & C. Ross (Eds.), Handbook of Business Communication: Linguistic Approaches (pp. 433-465). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Inc.
18 Metaphor, metonymy, and euphemism in the language of economics and business
The present chapter has made it clear that tropes play an important role in the language of economics and business. Not surprisingly, metaphor has turned out to be the true master trope in this area. Metaphor stands out not only because of its high frequency, but also because of the important role it is believed to play in developing hypotheses and theories in the fields of economics and business administration. Since these two fields have so far had few areas of contact with linguistics, it seemed advisable – despite the more restrictive subtitle of this handbook – to take into account the abundant literature on metaphor produced by scholars from them. As is apparent from the discussion, these view metaphor differently from linguists, but there is also much common ground which, in the future, should lead to productive cooperation across disciplinary borders. Of the other tropes treated in this chapter, metonymy has a comparatively low profile in comparison with metaphor, while euphemism is the least tangible, since the euphemistic nature of a word or utterance can only be determined by taking into account a range of contextual factors. Nevertheless, even though our experience tells us that it is of paramount importance in many areas of economics and business, large-scale systematic analyses of the use of euphemism are still largely lacking.
Tropes are a general feature of human communication and, as such, they are by definition present in all languages and all types of communication. Nevertheless, languages and genres vary substantially in their preferences for some tropes over others, the lexicalization of single instances and the conventionalization of specific sub-patterns. The purpose of the present chapter is to analyse these aspects with respect to the language of economics and business. In this area metaphor, metonymy and euphemism are particularly relevant, which is the principal reason why we concentrate on these three types of tropes among the many others distinguished by scholars of rhetoric. Section 2 on metaphor is by Franz Rainer, Section 3 on metonymy by Regina Göke, and Section 4 on euphemism by Fiorenza Fischer.
2.1 Terminological preliminaries
What is a metaphor? This apparently simple question has occupied a host of philosophers, literary critics, linguists and cognitive psychologists for decades, if not centuries, with no far-reaching consensus in sight. The reason for this must surely lie in the fact that metaphor is a multifaceted phenomenon and that its analysis is intimately tied to highly controversial issues such as the nature of meaning. For the purposes of this section, it will suffice to provide a brief outline of some of the contentious issues, in order to fix the terminology and allow the reader better to appreciate the following sections on metaphor in economics and business. In common understanding, a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them”, to use Merriam-Webster’s definition.
Metaphors are relatively heterogeneous if viewed from the point of view of their function in human cognition or communication. As mentioned above, it is still controversial whether metaphor, or analogy, really constitutes the core of human cognition. But other, more modest claims seem to be shared by most scholars in the field. In science − even the “hard” sciences like physics − metaphor is readily granted an important heuristic role in establishing hypotheses and theories, and initially formulating these. Analogical transfer is indeed one of the most common heuristic strategies in scholarly research, as we will see in the following sections dedicated to economics and business. In this context, metaphors provide not only new ideas − new ways of looking at things − but also a vocabulary to communicate these. In fact, many scientific terms are of metaphorical origin, though this may no longer be perceived. Moreover, metaphors can also be used to explain abstract or otherwise complicated matters to others. This pedagogical function of metaphor is often difficult to distinguish from the heuristic function, since the same metaphor can be used for both purposes.
2.2 Economists and management scholars on metaphor
2.2.1 Metaphor in economics
Isolated reflections by individual economists on the use of metaphor can be found much earlier, but it was not until the 1980s that the more systematic debate about metaphor in the philosophy of science reached the field of economics. The initial impetus was provided by two seminal articles, Henderson (1982) and McCloskey (1983). Henderson pointed out that many economic terms (e.g., market forces, healthy economy, human capital) were based on metaphor, and that “[e]ven predictive models have underlying metaphorical foundations” (p. 147). McCloskey’s article had the far more ambitious goal of challenging the “modernist” philosophy of science underlying mainstream economic research. In that context, the author’s contention that “economics is heavily metaphoric” (p. 502) and that “models are metaphors” (p. 502) is only one among several lines of attack. While no one will deny that many central terms of economics are metaphorical in origin (e.g., game theory, depression, elasticity, equilibrium, competition), McCloskey went further by contending that much of the mathematical/geometrical machinery used in economics was equally metaphoric: “[t]o say that markets can be represented by supply and demand ‘curves’ is no less a metaphor than to say that the west wind is ‘the breath of autumn’s being’” (p. 502). Like Henderson, McCloskey also stressed the heuristic fruitfulness of metaphors such as human capital or Gary Becker’s (in-)famous likening of children to durable goods. Finally, McCloskey invited economists to be “self-conscious about metaphor” (p. 507) and to be wary of the ideological implications conveyed by economic metaphors such as Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
In theoretical discussions of metaphor in economics it is the mechanistic and the organistic varieties which have attracted most attention: two root metaphors whose influence, incidentally, extends well beyond economics. The organistic is the older: the ancient Greeks described the state of the economy in medical terms; in the 14th century, Oresme likened the movement of money in the economy to the flow of humors in the body; and since Mercantilist times money has been called the blood of the “body politic”. However, with the advent of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, and especially after Newton’s grand synthesis and the advances of hydromechanics, physics became the envy of all other scientific disciplines. And since they could not emulate it in substance, they tried at least to borrow its vocabulary. Mirowski (1989) argued that “the core of the neoclassical research program is a mathematical metaphor appropriated from physics in the 1870s which equates potential energy to ‘utility’, forces to ‘prices’, commodities to spatial coordinates, and kinetic energy to the budget constraint” (p. 176). He reproaches 20th-century mainstream economists for still sticking to this outdated model of physics. Another frequent complaint is that economics took over from physics the notion of law, which some consider to be fundamentally inappropriate for a social science such as economics (cf. Horvath and von Weizsäcker 2014). Given these criticisms of the mechanistic root metaphor, the debate about the relative merits for economics of it and its organic counterpart, which has attracted renewed interest since the 19th century Darwinian revolution, is an ongoing one (cf. Lowe 1951 for a pro-mechanistic, Thoben 1982, Hodgson 1993a, b for a pro-organistic stance).
2.2.2 Metaphor in organization studies
2.2.3 Metaphor in marketing
Generally speaking, one may say that the debate on metaphor has been more intense in the field of organization studies than in marketing. The section “Metaphors in marketing” of Arndt (1985: 16−19) provides a brief enumeration of the most important metaphors that researchers have employed throughout the history of marketing. The discussion, however, remains confined to the conceptual level, with no attention paid to language as such in the form of systematic text analysis. Other studies have an even more limited scope. Scully (1996), for example, examines the role of engineering metaphors in the early years of marketing (1900−1920), while Hunt and Menon (1995) concentrate on competitive strategy, where they identify four main source domains, viz. ‘war’, ‘game’, ‘organism’, and ‘marriage’. These authors make a distinction between “literary” and theoretically fruitful metaphors. ‘Strategic alliances as marriages’ exemplifies the latter type, ‘marketing myopia’ the literary variety, since it “most emphatically does not suggest that understanding the physiology of the human eye or borrowing theories from ophthalmology are (or should be) central to marketing management” (p. 82). Another case of “shallow” metaphor is the ‘product life cycle’: “Although the terminology of the PLC comes from biology, little of the rich theory in that area has been transferred to the PLC.” (p. 86). Fillis and Rentschler (2008) also insist on the heuristic function of metaphor, i.e. its function of stimulating creative thinking, very much in the vein of Gareth Morgan. They point out that metaphor is abundantly used in marketing practice, especially in advertising. As for the art of advertising, Boozer, Wyld, and Grant (1990) claim that a good metaphor has to be new, concise, coherent, and use attractive words familiar to the target audience. Since marketers are practically-minded people, their article furthermore contains a “ten-step process to develop metaphor skills” (p. 65).
2.2.4 Metaphor in accounting
2.3 Linguistic approaches
2.3.1 Why do linguists study metaphor in economics and business?
As discussed in Section 2.2, economists and management scholars have mainly been interested in the role played by metaphor in theory construction, echoing the earlier interest in the same topic in the philosophy of science. The use of metaphor in economic life and management practice has also come under examination, but on a much more limited scale. It is in this latter area that the interests of economists, management scholars and linguists should converge, since the object of study is constituted by metaphors as linguistic expressions and their functions in communication. In reality, however, there has to date been little exchange between the different fields mentioned.
Linguists’ interests in metaphor in economics and business have been manifold, which is why the existing literature presents such a heterogeneous picture. For the purpose of the present overview, five principal topics will be distinguished: the classification of conceptual metaphors; the identification of cross-linguistic commonalities and differences; the critical analysis of metaphors’ ideological use; the study of the origin and history of individual metaphors; and, last but not least, the pedagogical implications for education and foreign-language teaching. These five topics will now be reviewed in turn.
2.3.2 Classifications of conceptual metaphors
As already commented in Section 2.1, metaphors frequently form clusters related by mutual inference, which are called “metaphoric fields” (in German, Metaphernfelder) or, more commonly nowadays, “conceptual metaphors”. A priori, a classification could be based on one of three different questions:
– What source domains do the metaphors come from?
– What are the target domains that most often trigger metaphorical naming strategies?
– What couplings of source and target domain are found in the language/discourse of economics and business?
Many of the earliest publications (e.g., Ghiczy 1988: 211 on German; Stegu 1986: 69−71 and Schmitt 1988: 118 on French; Hennet and Gil 1992 on Spanish) tried to answer the first of these questions, yielding catalogues of source domains of metaphors generally gleaned from the business section of newspapers. Stegu, for example, identified the following “semantic fields”: spatial representations (e.g., ‘spiral’), liquids (e.g., ‘liquidity’), technology (e.g., ‘engine’), military (e.g., ‘campaign’), sports (e.g., ‘champion’), weather (e.g., ‘brightening’), organic life/medicine (e.g., ‘recovery’). Classifications were on the whole quite similar, variations being due mostly to the choices of corpus to serve as the research basis and the criteria that were used for the inclusion of metaphors into a particular metaphoric field. Brandstetter’s (2015) analysis of metaphors used in corporate communication still fits into this strand of research.
In more recent times, single source domains have received closer attention. Boers (1997a, b), for example, concentrated on ‘health’, used as a source domain for describing the state of the economy since Aristotle’s time. According to the author, ‘health’ metaphors are most frequent in newspapers with a free-market ideology and are also more frequent in winter than in summer. As far as the latter correlation is concerned, he surmises that “the observed seasonal fluctuation may be taken as indirect evidence of the connection between bodily experience and abstract thought” (Boers 1997b: 55). It could also be, however, that the observed frequency difference is simply due to the higher frequency of health-related words in winter: you need not have a cold yourself in order to use a ‘health’ metaphor. Other more detailed studies have concerned the source domain comprising natural phenomena (e.g., White 2004 on ‘turbulence’; Eubanks 2012 on the ‘perfect storm’, with interesting remarks on metaphor theory).
2.3.3 Cross-linguistic commonalities and differences
We have already seen in Section 2.1 that the linguistic literature on metaphor includes some debate about the universality of conceptual metaphors. In the domain of economics and business, this debate is reflected by a series of articles which have sought to find out the extent to which economic and business metaphors are shared cross-linguistically.
Reviewing the early literature, which was essentially based on the business sections of the press, Jäkel (1993: 19) arrived at the conclusion that “[i]n general [. . .], it can be established that, with only minor exceptions, in English, French, German, and Spanish, the same metaphorical source domains are employed in the description of economic processes”. This conclusion, which was corroborated by later studies carried out on other European and even some non-European languages, called for an explanation. In the event, two were offered, neither of which ruled out the other (cf. Semino 2002: 136): on the one hand, borrowing, especially the influence of English in the domain of economics and business (e.g., Charteris-Black and Ennis 2001: 251; Silaški and Đurović 2010: 136); on the other, the supposed universality of conceptual metaphors, at least body-related ones (e.g., Urbonaitė and Šeškauskienė 2007: 72). With respect to this latter hypothesis, however, Mouton (2012) has correctly pointed out that even body-related metaphors, such as the ‘health’ metaphor so popular in economics, are highly culture-bound. Many European ‘health’ metaphors, for example, still derive from Galenic medicine, and they are continually updated, as when the French president Jacques Chirac called speculation le sida de l’économie ‘the AIDS of the economy’ in 1995.
Cross-linguistic comparisons also unearthed some differences, even among closely related Indo-European languages. First, some languages use metaphors less in economics and business than others. Urbonaitė and Šeškauskienė (2007: 70), for example, found that “Lithuanian seems to be much less inclined to metaphorical reasoning in political and economic discourse” than English. It could well be, however, that this is a difference between journalistic writing traditions – a relic of Soviet times? − more than between the languages themselves. Espunya and Zabalbeascoa (2003: 172) have similarly found that, contrary to their English colleagues, “Spanish writers do not ask their readers to unravel the metaphorical relationship for rhetorical purposes”. Second, differences may arise if an English metaphor has yet to be translated into a particular language, for example the ‘white knight’ metaphor in the case of Slovene in 2004 (Bratož 2004: 191). And third, languages may have the same conceptual metaphor but use a slightly different metaphorical expression, for reasons that have to be established in each individual case. Bratož (2004: 185), for example, reports that the ‘bubble’ metaphor has been adapted to Slovene by using the word for ‘balloon’ (balon). Sometimes, the non-transferability has to do with the absence of an adequate word in the receiving language. The “nuclear” metaphors meltdown and fallout, for example, which are highly popular in the Anglo-Saxon economic press, have no equivalent in Spanish (Charteris-Black and Ennis 2001: 263) and Italian (Luporini 2013: 175). “This discrepancy”, Luporini surmises, “may be explained in terms of the absence of nuclear power stations from Italy.” However, a much more straightforward explanation is available: the Italian equivalent of meltdown and fallout, i.e. fusione del nocciolo and pioggia/ricaduta radioattiva, are simply too unwieldy from the formal point of view to yield a good material basis for a metaphor. The same applies to Spanish.
Nevertheless, some differences are indeed amenable to cultural explanations. Kermas (2006), for example, argued that the differences in metaphor use that she found between American and British newspapers could be attributed to Americans being more optimistic and energetic than Brits. And Wang, Runtsova, and Chen (2013: 273) found that the global downturn after 2007 was often conceptualized in Russian newspapers with metaphors recalling major events during World War II, such as ‘June 1941’ or the ‘battle of Moscow’, which are still very present in Russian discourse today.
2.3.4 Critical discourse analysis
2.3.5 Word histories
3.1 Terminological preliminaries
Like that of metaphor, the study of metonymy has a long tradition ranging from classical rhetoric to modern linguistics and, more recently, to organization studies as a sub-discipline of management studies. Accordingly, metonymy has been tackled from a considerable number of theoretical and empirical angles. In Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, metonymy is defined as “a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated (as crown in “lands belonging to the crown”)”. In contrast to this definition, which focuses on metonymy as a naming strategy, modern scholarly approaches concentrate on the cognitive processes underlying the figure of speech. These processes highlight one conceptual entity (the “source domain”) instead of another (the “target domain”) that stands in what is called a contiguity relation to the source domain (Koch 2012: 263). By this is meant, in broad terms, a nontaxonomic relation between conceptual entities associatively connected with each other in a given context of communication. Some examples of contiguities are the relationship between an institution and its members, a container and its content, a producer and the product, an owner and his or her property, or a cause and its effect. For the sake of clarity, the linguistic manifestations of these cognitive processes of metonymy, or “conceptual metonymies” are often referred to as “metonymic expressions” or “linguistic metonymies”.
It must be noted that, in the cognitive approach, the conception of metonymic expressions goes further than that of the notion of “figures of speech” because it not only covers the “names of things” but also spans from lexical to more complex linguistic structures such as whole sentences. For example, the word company in The company decided to expand is a lexical expression of a conceptual metonymy which activates a contiguity relation between ‘company’ (source domain) and ‘members of that company’ (target domain). The utterance It’s cold here inside, on the other hand, may be used in a given context as the linguistic expression of a conceptual metonymy relying on the relationship between a cause (‘I feel cold’) and its effect (‘I want you to close the window’).
The following sections concentrate on lexical expressions of metonymies because they traditionally represent the most prototypical and probably also the most prominent manifestations of metonymy. Like metaphors, lexical metonymies differ with respect to their status in the mental lexicon, i.e. their degree of conventionalization or lexicalization. In order to take these graduated differences into account, researchers usually differentiate between “ad hoc” or “creative”, “conventional” and “lexicalized” metonymies (Koch 2004: 27−29; Markert and Nissim 2006: 153).
In research on the language of economics and business, metonymies have so far played a rather minor role. Conventional metonymies have been explored in some linguistic studies of business-media discourse and, more recently, within the (non-linguistic) research field of organization studies. To my knowledge, no studies have been carried out on ad hoc metonymies, and very little has been said about metonymic term formation or semantic change. The following sections will provide an overview of the state of the art.
3.2 The linguistic analysis of metonymies in business-media discourse and terminology
3.2.1 Metonymies in business-media discourse
Corpus-based studies on metonymies in business media have demonstrated that metonymy is a productive and also very frequent phenomenon (Weidacher 1971: Metaphor, metonymy, and euphemism in the language of economics and business 449 84−91; Lecolle 2001: 153; Hänchen and Schnitzer 2003: 41; Markert and Nissim 2006: 153). Lexical metonymies in business media tend to be conventionalized (Koch 2004: 25). Although they occur quite often, the majority of these metonymies are not memorized in the mental lexicon as new lexical entries or new technical terms. They generally serve rhetorical purposes and may, depending on the context, create different semantic-pragmatic effects. Most can be observed in all the more common Western languages, but a minority seem to be more usual in some languages than in others (Hänchen and Schnitzer 2003: 41). Common source domains in all the observed languages are companies, markets, organizations, locations/places and goods. Frequent targets are economic agents, facilities, markets, prices/values, and goods. In the following, metonymic expressions are assigned to three different groups according to source domain. For each group, the most frequent target domains in business media are then described, together with the resultant semantic-pragmatic effects.
Probably the most thoroughly examined source domain of metonymic usage is that of institutions (i.e. companies, markets, and organizations). Depending on the specific target, these metonymies may be classified into at least five main types. Table 18.1 includes examples of each. Their targets are contiguous entities such as company shares (type 1.1), share or market values (types 1.2 and 1.3), members of the institution (type 1.4) and facilities of the institution such as factories, branches or offices (type 1.5) (Lecolle 2001: 165–166; Hänchen and Schnitzer 2003: 41; Markert and Nissim 2006: 162).
Table 18.1: Institutions as source domains
The second group of source domains consists of locations/places and may be divided into four regularly occurring types (see Table 18.2). The first refers to the stock market located at that place (type 2.1). It is inherently linked to the second, which relies on the relationships between a place, the stock market located there and an index of that market’s performance (type 2.2). Type 2.3 can be seen as a combination of type 2.1 and the ‘institution for members’ type (1.4). Here, a location is linked to a stock market and, consequently, to the stock-market agents. The target concepts of type 2.4 are similar to those of the ‘company for facility’ type 1.5, in that they represent facilities of a company located at the place in question.
Table 18.2: Locations as source domains
Finally, two types of metonymies have been identified whose source domains are economic goods such as products or money (see Table 18.3). The first activates the relationship between a good and the whole market sector (type 3.1). This type is quite frequent in Spanish and French, but rather rare in English and German, which is the reason why the examples in Table 18.3 are, exceptionally, drawn from the two Romance languages. The second type relies on a contiguity relation between a good and its price or value (type 3.2).
3.2.2 Metonymic term formation and semantic change in economics and business
In certain cases, metonymic processes result in the creation of new terms. They lead to the formation of new stable concepts and, thus, impact the mental lexicon. Unfortunately, these processes have been little studied in terminologically-oriented research on the language of economics and business. Consequently, it is still unknown whether there are typical metonymic patterns of term formation within this special language. In other words, we do not know whether certain constellations of source and target domains regularly lead to the creation of new terms. Given this lack of research, the present section will limit itself to the enumeration of individual examples, presented in Table 18.4. In some examples, such as layoff or downsizing, metonymic term formation creates a euphemistic effect.
However, such metonymic creation of new terms seems to be very rare in comparison to the metonymically induced semantic change of established ones (Weidacher 1971: 82). For example, Weidacher found that almost 90 per cent of the metonymies in his diachronic corpus were sense extensions of already existing business terms (e.g., bill ‘note of charges’ > ‘total charge’). These more subtle, “intra-disciplinary” shifts distinguish metonymic from metaphoric changes of meaning, which generally consist of transfers from one discipline to another (e.g., from science, technology, or agriculture to economics and business) (Weidacher 1971: 82; see also Section 2 of this chapter).
Weidacher classified metonymic changes of meaning into ten different types. His typology was based on previously existing lists of metonymic patterns in general language (Weidacher 1971: 84). By way of illustration, one example of each type is provided in Table 18.5. Given their complexity, no detailed comments on the examples will be made here.
Table 18.5: Types of metonymic semantic change according to Weidacher (1971: 84−91)
3.3 The analysis of metonymy within organization studies
4.1 Terminological preliminaries
According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the term euphemism refers to “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant” as well as to “the expression so substituted”. In the German tradition of studies on rhetoric, it is customary to distinguish two fundamental kinds of euphemism, called verhüllend and verschleiernd (cf. Dietl 1996: 1), translated by Burckhard (2009: 356) as “veiling” and “concealing”, respectively. The “veiling” subtype closely corresponds to the definition provided by Merriam- Webster, denoting an expression − mostly from the semantic areas of religion, death, disease, handicap, sexuality, excretion, etc. − that is avoided because it is taboo in the speech community. The “concealing” subtype, by contrast, refers to euphemisms that are used purposefully by a speaker in order to influence or, in extreme cases, manipulate the hearer. While the bulk of traditional linguistic studies on euphemism were devoted to the “veiling” kind, this latter type, as we will see, is the more relevant for the study of the language of economics and business.
4.2 The form of euphemisms
Euphemisms are often thought to be individual words, yet in reality they can be of any length, ranging from individual words up to whole utterances. An example of the latter kind would be the sentence The party is over, intended to announce an imminent downturn in economic activity or on the stock market. At the phrasal level, litotes − an affirmative statement expressed by the negative of the contrary − are often used with euphemistic intentions: German kein unbeträchtlicher Betrag ‘not an inconsiderable sum’, referring to a large amount; ein nicht unerheblicher Instabilitätsfaktor ‘a not insignificant factor of instability’, referring to the accumulation of huge debts as an important cause of instability. At the word level, many other tropes can be used with euphemistic intent. Thus economic downturns are commonly referred to by metaphors such as contraction, cooling, dent, dip, or slowdown. Metonymy may be employed in order to avoid naming the person responsible for a decision directly, saying “Brussels” instead of “commissioner X”. The use of oxymoron, i.e. the combination of incongruous words, attracted mockery and criticism when economic stagnation was first called “zero growth”, but in the meantime we even swallow “negative growth” (in German, Minuswachstum) as a euphemism for recession.
Among the techniques of word formation, abbreviation seems predestined for euphemistic uses. It has become established practice to reduce words one wants to avoid to their initial letter, calling, for example, recession the “R-word”. Further examples of this naming strategy are “D-word” (deflation), “I-word” (inflation), or “s-word” (sell, on the stock market) (cf. Resche 2013: 235). Acronyms fulfil a similar purpose, as when French SDF, shorthand for sans domicile fixe ‘homeless’, or English “UHNWI”, shorthand for “Ultra High Net Worth Individual”, are used to refer to the two extremes of the “social ladder”. Note, however, that these two euphemisms are used in quite different contexts: while SDF reflects the unease of civil servants and society at large, UHNWI is confined to the jargon of private bankers, probably in an attempt to avoid the negative connotations of super-rich.
Last but not least, the use of words of foreign origin or technical terms has always been an effective strategy for mitigating the impact of unpleasant concepts. In German, Anglicisms often fulfil euphemistic functions: when during the current crisis taxpayers were confronted with the grim perspective of having to pay enormous sums to rescue banks “too big to fail”, politicians and members of regulatory bodies resorted to English words such as “haircut”, “bailout” or “bad bank”. Technical terms may perform the same task since their precise meaning is not understood by the general public: when the Federal Reserve created vast amounts of money in order to purchase government bonds, the action was dubbed “quantitative easing”.
4.3 The functions of euphemisms
The reason for the ubiquity of euphemism in the language of economics and business lies in the fact that economic life is rife with situations where divergent interests have to be overcome: between buyers and sellers, employers and employees, savers and bankers, insurers and the insured, or politicians and taxpayers, to mention just a few. In such situations, the use of euphemisms can be a means to overcoming differences or at least getting along better. Each of these constellations would merit an in-depth inquiry on its own. In the absence of such large-scale inquiries, the following remarks must remain of a purely illustrative nature. They are structured on the basis of the distinction, already mentioned in Section 4.1, between the functions of “veiling” and “concealing”, with the proviso that the two are neither mutually exclusive nor always easy to distinguish in specific instances.
The “veiling” function is certainly less important in economics and business than in other areas of life, but it is not completely absent, finding ample use in advertisements for taboo-laden products. In the workplace, hierarchical relationships are the source of much euphemistic talk: employees will normally be addressed by their superiors as “collaborators” or “colleagues”, not as “subordinates”, “inferiors” or “underlings”. Yet another area prone to “veiling” is the labour market, especially all facets related to unemployment. German Minijob, for example, is an official euphemism for a kind of precarious employment (a job paid less than 450 Euros). The concept of firing has sparked off a whole series of euphemisms in different languages, among them English make redundant, German freisetzen, literally ‘to set free’, or French remercier, literally ‘to thank’. The language of social security is another hotspot of “veiling”, where the “paupers” of the 19th century have become “customers” towards the end of the 20th century (cf. Herles 1998) and homeless people in France SDF, as already mentioned. The motivations behind such a neologism remain ambiguous: it may have been created as a means of avoiding potentially insulting words in current use, such as clochard, but also out of shame or even with intent to “conceal”– three options perfectly compatible with one another.
“Concealing”, for its part, is in itself a vague term which covers a broad range of possible communicative intentions. As already mentioned, this function of euphemism is rampant in economics and business. When managers announce massive lay-offs, they usually speak of “restructuring”, “slimming down”, “downsizing”, “rightsizing”, or even “smartsizing” (Resche 2013: 237). Accounting practices situated in the grey areas of legality are referred to by accountants as “window-dressing”, the German equivalent being Bilanzkosmetik, literally ‘balance-sheet cosmetics’. “Tax optimization” is often little more than a euphemism for tax avoidance or evasion. Sometimes it is only a small step from euphemism to manipulation or even lie, as in the case of one former Austrian finance minister, who marketed his budget plan by invoking social justice and promising that citizens would “not be burdened with higher income tax” [einkommenssteuerlich nicht mehrbelastet werden]. In reality, although income tax indeed remained at the same level, the introduction of road tax, tuition fees and outpatient charges in hospitals, among other measures, effectively raised the general tax burden from 44.2% to 45.8% of GDP.
However, the ultimate goal of “concealing” euphemisms can also be the good of society. Especially in difficult economic situations, speaking out too frankly would cause damage to the economy by provoking undesirable reactions among the public. If a central bank governor avoids pronouncing the word deflation, it is because by doing so he might provoke or strengthen expectations of a fall in prices, and thereby actually contribute to its coming about, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is certainly no coincidence that at the moment of writing, when the euro zone is facing the danger of deflation, expressions such as “negative inflation”, “ultra-low inflation”, “lowflation” and “subflation” are appearing in the press. Similarly, a word out of turn can provoke a bank run and thereby precipitate the crisis it seeks to prevent. So when, in 1933, with the US banking system on the brink of insolvency and savers’ trust in the system dwindling away, President Roosevelt shut down the banks for four days, he spoke merely of “bank holidays”. This wording suggested bureaucratic normalcy and allowed Congress to pass an Emergency Banking Act that stabilized the system. The expression stayed in the collective memory and later served as a model for the neologism CAPEX holiday (CAPEX is shorthand for capital expenditure), which refers to a situation where a company decides to stop investing for some time.