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Thinking Out Loud

Fatal Events

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 14, 2014

Please file this blog under "Rants."

The commercial for a new pharmaceutical wonder - marketed directly to the public - touts its remarkable healing powers complete with heart-warming video.  Then, in the audio disclaimer, we are warned of the drug's unfortunate side-effects.  "Ask your doctor if Winklemyoxydromide is right for you. Side effects, which are usually temporary, may include vomiting a weird purple gelatinous substance while whistling annoying commercial jingles, uncontrollable shouting of the words "Huxtable  wobbles," scurvy, dropsy, oopsy, and doopsy.  Some subjects have experienced a fatal event while taking Winklemyoxydromide.  See your physician immediately if you experience any of these side effects."

Hold the phone!  

I ran the commercial back using the replay function on that clever handheld television control device of which the U.S. Constitution guarantees every male citizen of this country exclusive possession.  There it was again!  

"You may experience a fatal event," stated with the insouciance of the soulless.  

I turn to my bewildered spouse, who is doing something constructive, though I can't recall what.  

"What does that mean," I ask.  "A fatal event?"  

"Death," answers Debbie.  


Since when did death become a fatal event?  

Can we really imagine Dylan Thomas raging, raging against the fatal eventuating of the illumination?  

Those of us of a certain age will remember a comedy routine by the late George Carlin, in which he talks about the tendency in American culture to use language to avoid meaning while simultaneously increasing the syllable count.  Turns out that not only was Carlin brilliant and hilarious, as well as stunningly profane, but also prophetic.  The fatally-eventuated (aka, late) Carlin chronicled the inflation of terms that over time become increasingly less clear.

"I don't like words that hide the truth," Carlin says, "I don't like words that conceal reality."  

Carlin took as his prime example the term "shell shock."  Memorable, simple, clear, descriptive (two alliterative syllables), the term "shell shock" was coined in the First World War, Carlin said, to describe the condition of soldiers who were psychologically scarred by the terrors of war.  "The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap."  By the time of the Second World War, "shell shock" had become battle fatigue, "four syllables now," Carlin said, and it doesn't sound so bad, maybe a condition you could cure with a nice nap.  During the Korean War, "shell shock" had become "operational exhaustion," eight syllables and the condition "sounds like something that might happen to your car."  In the Vietnam War, "shell shock" became post-traumatic stress disorder, eight syllables PLUS a hyphen: unimaginable pain, Carlin says, "buried under jargon."  

His humor lifts up for us the obfuscation masquerading as euphemism that has become so prevalent in contemporary society that we hardly notice that we ought to call it by its original term:  lies. 

So, back to my rant.  The ad (if it should be made at all, and frankly I think it is a bad idea to market pharmaceuticals directly to the public) should say: "If you take this drug, your pimples might clear up, but you also may die."  

By the way, I guarantee the next euphemism for death will be “post-existential episode” (more syllables, a hyphen and even less clear).

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