George Carlin's "Soft Language"

How euphemisms can dull or soften reality

George Carlin
American comedian George Carlin (1937-2008). (Kevin Statham/Getty Images)

Soft language is a phrase coined by American comedian George Carlin to describe euphemistic expressions that "conceal reality" and "take the life out of life."

"Americans have trouble facing the truth," Carlin said. "So they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it" (Parental Advisory, 1990).

Under Carlin's definition, euphemisms are the closest synonym to "soft language", although the "softness" is implied to be an effect of the euphemism's usage. When a euphemism is used, its purpose is to soften the impact of something shocking, crude, ugly, embarrassing, or something along those lines. Carlin's point is that this indirect language may spare us some discomfort, but at the cost of vividness and expressiveness.

A corollary to this is jargon, which is specialized language for particular fields. On the surface, its intention is to express specialized ideas more clearly and specifically. In practice, however, jargon-heavy language tends to obscure the point rather than clarify it.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Sometime during my life toilet paper became bathroom tissue. . . . Sneakers became running shoes. False teeth became dental appliances. Medicine became medication. Information became directory assistance. The dump became the landfill. Car crashes became automobile accidents. Partly cloudy became partly sunny. Motels became motor lodges. House trailers became mobile homes. Used cars became previously owned transportation. Room service became guest room dining. Constipation became occasional irregularity. . . .​"The CIA doesn't kill anybody anymore. They neutralize people. Or they depopulate the area. The government doesn't lie. It engages in misinformation."
    (George Carlin, "Euphemisms." Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics, 1990)
  • "When a company is 'levering up,' it often means, in regular language, that it is spending money it doesn’t have. When it is 'right-sizing' or finding 'synergies,' it may well be firing people. When it 'manages stakeholders,' it could be lobbying or bribing. When you dial into 'customer care,' they care very little. But when they call you, even at dinnertime, then it’s a 'courtesy call.'"
    (A. Giridharadas, "Language as a Blunt Tool of the Digital Age." The New York Times, Jan. 17, 2010)

George Carlin on "Shell Shock" and "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder"

  • "Here’s an example. There’s a condition in combat that occurs when a soldier is completely stressed out and is on the verge of a nervous collapse. In World War I it was called 'shell shock.' Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables. Shell shock. It almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was more than eighty years ago.
    "Then a generation passed, and in World War II the same combat condition was called 'battle fatigue.' Four syllables now; takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much. 'Fatigue' is a nicer word than 'shock.' Shell shock! Battle fatigue.
    "By the early 1950s, the Korean War had come along, and the very same condition was being called 'operational exhaustion.' The phrase was up to eight syllables now, and any last traces of humanity had been completely squeezed out of it. It was absolutely sterile: operational exhaustion. Like something that might happen to your car.
    "Then, barely fifteen years later, we got into Vietnam, and, thanks to the deceptions surrounding that war, it’s no surprise that the very same condition was referred to as 'post-traumatic stress disorder.' Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen, and the pain is completely buried under jargon: post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ll bet if they had still been calling it 'shell shock,' some of those Vietnam veterans might have received the attention they needed.
    "But it didn’t happen, and one of the reasons is soft language; the language that takes the life out of life. And somehow it keeps getting worse."
    (George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty. Hyperion, 2001)

Jules Feiffer on Being "Poor" and "Disadvantaged"

  • "I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn't poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived. Then they told me deprived was a bad image, I was underprivileged. Then they told me underprivileged was over-used, I was disadvantaged. I still don't have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary."
    (Jules Feiffer, cartoon caption, 1965)

George Carlin on Poverty

  • "Poor people used to live in slums. Now 'the economically disadvantaged' occupy 'substandard housing' in the 'inner cities.' And a lot of them are broke. They don't have 'negative cash flow.' They're broke! Because many of them were fired. In other words, management wanted to 'curtail redundancies in the human resources area,' and so, many workers are no longer 'viable members of the workforce.' Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It's as simple as that."
    (George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty. Hyperion, 2001)

Soft Language in Business

  • "It is perhaps only a sign of the times that one business appoints a new executive, a chief information officer, to 'monitor the life cycle of documents'--that is, to take charge of the shredder."
    (Robert M. Gorrell, Watch Your Language!: Mother Tongue and Her Wayward Children. Univ. of Nevada Press, 1994)

Opaque Words

  • "Today, the real damage isn't done by the euphemisms and circumlocutions that we're likely to describe as Orwellian. Ethnic cleansing, revenue enhancement, voluntary regulation, tree-density reduction, faith-based initiatives, extra affirmative action--those terms may be oblique, but at least they wear their obliquity on their sleeves.
    "Rather, the words that do the most political work are simple ones--jobs and growth, family values, and color-blind, not to mention life and choice. Concrete words like these are the hardest ones to see through--they're opaque when you hold them up to the light."
    (Geoffrey Nunberg, Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times. Public Affairs, 2004)

Soft Language in Stephen Dedalus's Dream of Hell

  • "Goatish creatures with human faces, horny-browed, lightly bearded and grey as india-rubber. The malice of evil glittered in their hard eyes, as they moved hither and thither, trailing their long tails behind them. . . . Soft language issued from their spittleless lips as they swished in slow circles round and round the field, winding hither and thither through the weeds, dragging their long tails amid the rattling canisters. They moved in slow circles, circling closer and closer to enclose, to enclose, soft language issuing from their lips, their long swishing tails besmeared with stale shite, thrusting upwards their terrific faces . . .."
    (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916)
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Nordquist, Richard. "George Carlin's "Soft Language"." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, July 31). George Carlin's "Soft Language". Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "George Carlin's "Soft Language"." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).