Know Your Words

Going “Back to Basics” (No, I Don’t Think So)

MW-Euph
Credit: Merriam-Webster

As noted in the Dictionary of Euphemisms and other Doubletalk, “Euphemisms are in a constant state of flux. New ones are created almost daily.”

For proof of that, I suggest you look no further than the erstwhile head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who recently signed a memorandum outlining a “back-to-basics” process for reviewing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) under the Clean Air Act.

I won’t bore you with the legalese of Pruitt’s memo (you can read that for yourself on the EPA website) or parrot the objections of its critics who contend that the administrator’s aim is to weaken this piece of landmark environmental legislation (you can read them for yourself here, here, here, and here). I will simply point out that Pruitt’s clever use of the phrase “back to basics” to sell the proposed changes to the NAAQS review process looks like modern political euphemism of the finest order.

According to Merriam-Webster, the idiom “go back to basics” means “to return to a simpler way of doing something or thinking about something,” generally for the purposes of making improvements. Therefore, in terms of the standards that underpin the Clean Air Act, to go back to basics would mean taking the simplest and most straightforward approach to regulating air pollution under the law to improve public health. The Pruitt memo proposes the exact opposite by calling for:

  • Limits on the type of scientific data the EPA may consider.
  • Increased industry representation on EPA scientific advisory boards.
  • Consideration of economic impacts in matters pertaining to human health.

Call me crazy, but it seems like the goal here is not to simplify and improve, but to hamstring, obfuscate, and, eventually, weaken.

Euphemism is derived from the Greek words euphēmos, meaning “auspicious” or “sounding good,” and phēmē, meaning “speech.” When you put those together, the result is an explanation of the term not unlike the one found in the (aptly named) Faber Dictionary of Euphemisms: “The use of a mild or vague or t periphrastic  expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable truth.”

In closing, it’s worth pointing out that this phrase, “back to basics,” does not appear in any of the Laurel Dictionary Collection and Museum’s dictionaries of doubletalk, doublespeak, or euphemism. Moreover, I got squat when I searched “‘back to basics’ and ‘euphemism'” on  Google as well. This means the SDCL is leading the charge to place “back to basics” on list of modern political euphemisms. I plan to start the campaign soon, just as soon as I’m finished spending more time with my family.

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