Africa: Euphemism or Problem of Semantics?

One of the greatest challenges I face in Africa is the ability to understand clearly the difference between the use of euphemism and identifying a semantics problem. Yes, semantics problem; or if you like, the problem of meaning or definition.

For the sake of clarity, I will start by defining both terms. Put is a simpler way, semantics is the study of meaning in language, programming languages, semiotic and formal logics, while euphemism is a soft, mild, indirect, or vague use of the term or word, which often replaces a blunt, strong, harsh or offensive term. Generally, factors like politics, age, religion, culture, gender, ethnicity have an influence on the use of euphemisms. So it is not strange to hear in Africa that someone has eaten or “chopped” the money meant for social services instead of embezzlement or bluntly put, stealing of money. What about your leaders talking about people on the streets instead of homeless people? Comfort house? Yes, not uncommon to read about politicians visiting comfort woman instead of prostitutes. Others, like the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi would call such an act bunga bunga. Ask your leaders about the gap between the rich and poor, you would be surprised to hear that the masses are not poor, but are economically disadvantaged; they live in substandard housing, or in an economically depressed neighbourhood –  unlike their leaders who live in a mansion. Bill Clinton did admit he smoked marijuana, but didn’t inhale, instead of the phrase “to get high.” You can go on and on.

Clearly, we use euphemisms to express, dilute or even hide something unpleasant, embarrassing or a taboo; hence euphemisms help us hide or minimise the effects of illegal behaviours as well as downplay the severity of them. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to classify euphemism, which means, etymologically speaking,  “to lie” in Greek, as the language of disguise, pretence or deception.

Hum. But the use of euphemism goes beyond linguistic or choice of words or phrase. Euphemism usage can equally influence our semantic choices and define the social cognition of language users. More than that, it systematically legitimizes, as well, the environment and the social relationship of the users. If stealing billions of dollars of the public money is defined as “pocketing,” “misappropriate” or “mismanagement,” while taking a sack of rice that does not belong to one is termed “stealing,” then euphemism can clearly create a  problem of semantics by using different words for the same act. These clear word differences (choice of semantics, and thus differences in meaning), once gained currency amongst users,  can be retained subconsciously in the mind of users and define the relationship amongst them. We see this clearly in the relationship between many Africans and their leaders – just as well as their attitude towards their leaders. Consider a typical situation in Africa, where a desperately poor thief is lynched for stealing a tuber of yam, probably because they don’t have any means of putting a meal on the table for the family. On the other hand, a rich leader or politician who steals millions of dollars every day and fastidiously banks the money meant for the social services for you and your children’s future in their personal account is not only left un-harassed, they are adored. If a poor guy is mercilessly beaten up and labelled a thief for stealing a yam, maize or a goat, what would you call someone who stole all the money budgeted for your health care, roads, hospitals, schools for your children, electricity, water and sanitary? Perhaps they touched the money, but didn’t steal it?

For the sake of clarity, nothing justifies stealing; at the same time, nothing explains the rationale behind creating different names for the same crime – worse still, using a euphemism for, in fact, a more terrible crime. Recently, three accused persons, labelled thieves, were dragged to the court in Zimbabwe for allegedly stealing a suitcase containing $150,000 belonging to the country’s ousted president, Robert Mugabe. Accepted that the three accused may have stolen the bag of money, it makes one wonder why hardly any eyebrows were raised over how the owner of the said bag of money could have acquired it and why it was, in fact, left at the home of the former President, instead of in the bank. It equally becomes worrisome bearing in mind that Zimbabwe has been experiencing an acute shortage of dollars and other foreign currencies. A situation like this clearly demonstrates the effects of euphemism and problems of meanings in Africa.

Although the use of euphemisms enriches the vocabulary and presents an unpleasant occasion or issue rather mild, it manipulates the social cognition and the relationship between the communication process participants. Worse still, it effectively hides the truth and effectively creates a double meaning of the same act. It is this creation of a double meaning that polarizes African social environment, relations and legitimatizes corruption and makes Africans mere zombies in relation to their everyday problems and challenges. Time to call a spade a spade!