In war or business, weasel words come back to bite you

Whether in Libya or Hollywood, a euphemism masks the ugly truth that must eventually come to light.

Powered by automated translation

I once sat down with a major American movie star who wanted to do a television show.

Well, he wasn't so major when I sat down with him. By the time a movie star finds himself sitting across from me in the lounge at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, he's pretty much come to the end of his feature film career and, often, his money.

He began the meeting by informing me that he didn't really want to do television and planned, if the show was a hit, to break his contract at the soonest opportunity. He then spent the next 30 minutes texting and talking on the phone, got up abruptly and walked out.

"OK," said his manager, when he called me an hour later to apologise, "I think we can all agree that the first meeting was sub-optimal."

"Sub-optimal?" I asked. "That's the nicest possible way to put it."

"I like to put things in the most positive way," he said. "Let's leave it at this: magic didn't happen."

"It certainly didn't," I said.

"But maybe it can happen the next time you meet?" he added, his voice rising in a tone.

It didn't happen the next time we met, mostly because there wasn't a next time. There are enough terrific actors who want to be on television that it's inefficient to waste time trying to convince the ones who don't.

But those phrases stuck with me - "sub-optimal" and "magic didn't happen" - because they were new euphemisms in a business that seems to coin them every day.

In Hollywood, we have elaborate euphemisms for every kind of unpleasant outcome. Writers who have been sacked are said to have "left the project" and starlets with addiction problems are reported as "being treated for dehydration".

It's fun, of course, to tut-tut and tsk-tsk the euphemisers in Hollywood for refusing to call things what they really are - the reputation we have worldwide, and it's a fair one, is of a viper's pit of liars - but there isn't an industry or a large organisation around that doesn't prefer the orotund, roundabout way to deliver the news.

Fighter jets flying into Libyan airspace, probably at this very moment, might sound to some of us like an old fashioned war. I'm pretty sure it seems that way to the people on the ground, hearing the whistle of the bombs as they fall. I bet they're calling it a war. Even Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, mad as he is, knows a war when he sees one.

But if you're President Barack Obama, you call it a "kinetic military action", which is about as silly and uninformative a phrase as any president has come up with, ever since Richard Nixon and his staff decided to release certain details of their ill-doings and withhold the important stuff in what they called a "modified limited hangout".

"Kinetic military action" is the kind of phrase a person uses when they don't want to use the "w" word - "war" - or the "W" name - George W Bush. But the problem with euphemisms, in government and business, is that they're just delaying the moment when they eventually need to be clarified.

This week, Mr Obama made some linguistic adjustments. It wasn't a "kinetic military action" but a "time-limited, scope-limited military action". All of this complicated parsing came to a head when he spoke to the nation on Tuesday night and did his best to define what all these weasel words mean. In the end, he never really used the "w" word. But he did sound an awful lot like W.

Near the end of his speech, he added an odd little phrase. "I refused to wait," he said, "for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

For the images? What about, um, the actual stuff?

And that, really, is the trouble with euphemisms like "kinetic military action" or "magic didn't happen". They lull people into a dreamy-dream world, where if certain things aren't said - there will be no profits from this motion picture; there's a war going on in Libya; your actor client is insane - they somehow aren't happening.

Euphemisms are fine when they're doing what they were designed for: conveying unpalatable information about bodily functions and/or romantic acrobatics in a socially acceptable and inoffensive way. But when they're employed to avoid the awkwardness of real missiles flying in the real air, or real humanitarian disasters happening on the real ground, well, then, best to put them away and call a war a war.

In his speech this week, Mr Obama sounded less like a president and more like that desperate manager I spoke to. And that, as they say, is very sub-optimal.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood