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On the Euphemism Treadmill


The consulting firm Ernst & Young, in collaboration with the FBI, has developed software that scans office emails – as well as text messages and IM conversations on company devices – for phrases that may indicate underlings are up to no good. It has released a list of the most popular terms used by conspirators in corporate fraud, including ‘do not volunteer information’ and ‘nobody will find out’.

The publication of the blacklist is likely to be nothing but helpful to future fraudsters (as well as Ernst & Young), since they now know what not to say. They might already have suspected that warning a colleague in an email ‘don’t leave a trail’ could be counterproductive. But now would-be scammers also know to avoid such terms as ‘friendly payments’, ‘write off’ and ‘failed investment’.

The effect, in other words, will be to speed up the ‘euphemism treadmill’. Euphemisms usually come with a sell-by date, after which everyone sees through their rhetorical misdirection and they need to be replaced. No one is fooled any longer by the Boer War coinage ‘concentration camp’. And J.K. Galbraith pointed out half a century ago that, in the vocabulary of financial shock, the term ‘depression’ was introduced as a euphemism for ‘crisis’, until ‘depression’ came to be considered too depressing and made way for ‘recession’.

In some cases, employees engaged in nefarious activities simply need to learn to use euphemisms in the first place, rather than such incriminatingly direct language as ‘not ethical’. They could learn a thing or two from their bosses, who have over the years developed an impressive range of circumlocutions for the practice of job destruction: ‘downsizing’, ‘rationalization’, job ‘losses’, ‘letting go’ and so on.

The most unnerving detail in the report is that the expressions ‘Call my mobile’ and ‘come by my office’ will raise red alerts in the system, since they signify a desire to communicate ‘out of band’, leaving no electronic trail. In the new corporate panopticon of perfect ‘compliance’, even wanting to speak face-to-face with a colleague will brand you a potential troublemaker. Better to sit tight at your keyboard, keep your head down, and leaf slowly through a thesaurus.

Comments on “On the Euphemism Treadmill”

  1. streetsj says:

    The electronic nose can be updated “in real time” so that as soon as a neo-euphemism is understandable it can be added to the suspect vocabulary list.
    I see the opportunity for some serious cockups as traders, attempting to disguise their intentions from compliance, only confuse each other about what they really meant.

  2. klhoughton says:

    If that’s the list, fraudsters are even stupider than they are often portrayed.

    Then again, what does it say about enforcement mechanisms that so few are being prosecuted even as they use such terms in emails and IMs they know are subject to retention and review?

    We certainly knew that we (to borrow a phrase from the previous Great Depression) lack 30 bankers; now it is clear we lack 15 prosecutors as well.

  3. Ande Rychter says:

    This is a solution to a fake problem. The search for real corporate fraud should concentrate on the head office, not on the cube of the underling. Ernst & Young will of course work on any problem, no matter how silly, the corporate folly is willing to pay for.

  4. loxhore says:

    Don’t forget ‘restructuring’!

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