I got interested in this today because I saw a tweet quoting an old blog from Matt Webb:
“Our ancient ancestors were so worried about bears, they didn’t even want to name them because they feared [the bears] might overhear and come after them. So they came up with this word – this is up in Northern Europe – bruin, meaning “the brown one” as a euphemism, and then bruin segued into bear. We know the euphemism, but we don’t know what word it replaced”
In fact, there’s a lot more to this story (see attached), but it got me wondering – how often in the world of business do we get so caught up in euphemisms (late 16th century: from Greek euphēmismos, from euphēmizein ‘use auspicious words’, from eu ‘well’ + phēmē ‘speaking’) – and lose the original meaning?
‘Human resources’ is probably the best example – what do you think it originally meant?
The most obvious are, of course, all the euphemisms for ‘you’re fired’ – of which ‘corporate outplacing’ is perhaps the most aseptic.
When we use euphemisms, spin, even jargon we shield ourselves from the truth (analysis shows that heavy euphemisation on ‘corporate earnings calls’ changes investor responses).
But we often believe our own hype and lose contact with reality.
What is your favourite business euphemism?
And what are the implications?
The word is proto-Germanic, it seems, from ‘bruin’ / brown. Though Meda / Medved in the Slavic languages (related to ‘honey’ i.e. ‘honey lover’ is a euphemism too)
This http://cloudline.org/LinguisticArchaeology.html traces it back further to Proto-Indo-European (the recreation – reverse engineering of which – is interesting!)
Spanish use “perro” from Albanian “berr-i”, which originally means “lamb, little goat”. (But the word ‘oso’, from the Latin ursus, is known).
And Finnish has >200 word https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/suomi-finnish-bear.1205931/
This https://www.reddit.com/r/etymology/comments/ai9cl4/the_words_for_bear_in_germanic_slavic_and_baltic/ says In the Baltics, they went with “shaggy”: Lithuanian “lokys”, Latvian “lacis” and older “clokis” or “*tlakis”.
The Proto-Indo-European name seems to have been h₂ŕ̥tḱos that somehow became ursus in Latin, and could mean the destroyer. Also the root of ‘arctic’.
Proto-slavic may be something like ărstŭs / *ŏrstŭs which would devolve to rast or rost now.
There’s an xkcd! https://xkcd.com/2381/
https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/2381:_The_True_Name_of_the_Bear has that the hypothetical ‘arth’ is indeed the name in Welsh, Cornish, Italic, Greek, Indo-Aryan, and Armenian. In Welsh, it’s probably the double root of ‘Arthur’ (Arth-ursus)
A good general post on euphemisation (‘taboo deformation’) in language https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-does-dagnabbit-mean
NB ‘to bear something’ is apparently only convergent evolution
In business, earnings calls filled with euphemisms produced slower, delayed reactiosns https://theconversation.com/youre-unallocated-and-other-bs-companies-use-to-obscure-reality-109129
And there are at least 24 euphemisms for firing people https://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/11/a-compilation-of-euphemisms-for-layoffs.html
Though the NY Times found 48 https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/25/business/youre-fired-in-terms-only-a-boss-could-love.html
See more here https://resources.workable.com/stories-and-insights/the-limits-of-euphemism
We use euphemisms a *lot* in business https://stacker.com/stories/3567/do-you-know-meanings-behind-these-50-business-sayings
What are the implications of our use of business euphemism?
One thought on “What’s your favourite management euphemism?”
Originally posted on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/posts/antlerboy_the-name-of-the-bear-and-business-euphemisms-activity-6906510195887812608-r8QG/
See comments there.