Euphemism


A friend pointed me in the direction of this job advertisement the other day. It appears to be for a cleaner in a gym. Apart from the obvious euphemy in the job description, I was intrigued by the subversion of the job ad genre1.

Here is the ad in full:

Changeroom & Poolside Assistant

  • Bit of a neat freak?
  • Sydney CBD
  • Part time opportunity

We’re looking for fun, fit and feisty people with that certain ‘Virgin-ness’.  WAHEY.  We smile a lot and we always put our people first.  So come and work with us at Virgin Active – it’s going to be fun.  You like?

Our shiny club is probably the best thing you’ve ever seen.  Like, ever.  And we want it to stay like this, so we need a Changeroom & Poolside Assistant to keep it looking and feeling delicious for all the amazing people who work and work-out here.  If you’re a serious ‘neat freak’, you’ll love taking responsibility for ensuring the changerooms and pool areas are sparkly clean and looking spectacular.  ‘Cause, duh, we’re Virgin’.  You’ll wipe down treadmills to ensure members don’t slip on their own sweat and pick up any towels lying around (we like to keep them white and fluffy).  And you’ll be uber responsible because you’ll supervise aquatics and ensure safety is properly maintained.

Some stuff that will help you get the job:

  • At least six-months experience
  • Super-friendly, communicatey type of person
  • A bit of a neat-freak (and love to keep things clean and tidy)
  • Pool Lifeguard certificate would be awesome but not essential
  • Current Senior First Aid certificate and CPR/AED certification would be cool
  • Can do a rotating roster with weekends between 5:30am and 10:30pm

If this is you, then we’d love to:

  • Give you a challenge
  • Help you grow
  • Provide you with benefits
  • Listen to your new ideas
  • Work hard and play hard together

Love people?  Love health and fitness?  Love bananas?  Love to hear from you.

There’s lots in here to look at in the context of a job advertisement genre. The non-standard lexical items (communicatey, uber), heavy use of slang and youth-oriented language (duh, ‘like, ever’), attempts at humour (love bananas?) and playing up the whole virgin thing, especially the expletive wahey.

Above all, this job ad smacks of a corporate project to reinvigorate and funkify the company, one platform of which is to attract employees who they think would have a new, youthful, ‘cool’ approach to their jobs. They cleverly realise that the first interaction many people have with their jobs is the ad. And if they were trying to foster a youthful working environment, a traditional job ad — the sort that has phrases like required skills and desirable qualities as opposed to Current Senior First Aid certificate and CPR/AED certification would be cool— might deter the sort of applicants that they want.

However it still reads like an odd mixture of sexed-up, inauthentic youth-speak, and traditional corporate speak. For instance, the juxtaposition of the colloquial Super-friendly, communicatey type of person with the rather mundane, human resources jargon of Can do a rotating roster with weekends between 5:30am and 10:30pm is a bit jarring.

I suggest that Virgin underestimate their audience. Everybody who lives in a speech community is (at least subconsciously) aware of the various genres of language that surround them — from the extremely colloquial such as a chat between friends in a social situation, to the extremely formal, like legal proceedings, as well as the massive continuum between these poles2. I don’t see how anyone could have difficulty understanding a job ad that was more typical of the genre.

But then again, I suppose Virgin’s motivation is not to be understood by more people, but rather to stand out among the plethora of uninteresting job advertisements on the market.


  1. Sorry about the choice of title, but I couldn’t resist the increase in traffic from Google with the two keywords.
  2. I’m aware that these are better described as registers, whereas I refer above to the job ad ‘genre’, but the two concepts are inextricably linked.

My brother this morning uttered a sentence that I think deserves a bit of syntactic analysis. The context, if you can’t recover it from the sentence itself, was essentially my brother swapping a telephone cable, which resulted in the new cable sagging a bit with the slack. There is, however, a hook whose purpose is to take up the slack, except that it wasn’t in quite the right spot. Thus:

That hook could use moving.

This amused me somewhat, and much to their chagrin, I let everyone present know¹. It makes perfect sense to me, even if it’s a little difficult to see how the whole is composed by its parts, so I’m interested in how it came about.

I see the influence, and intersection, of a couple of other idiomatic syntactic constructions here, which I’ll refer to as the could use construction and the needs verbing construction.The could use construction was, I reckon, more originally said of animate subjects and refered to tangible things, such as:

I could use a torch

From here, it’s only a short journey to more abstract arguments, although the subject would still be an animate, as in:

You could use a break

This then would be taken to be euphemistic version of something like ‘I need a break’. Which brings me to the next construction of which this sentence was reminiscent: the needs verbing construction. I believe Language Log addressed this construction a while back, at least once, but I can’t find any record of it. The basic idea is, take a full sentence of the format x needs to be verb-en, and reformulate it such that it becomes x needs verbing. So your dog needs to be washed (unequivocally transparent syntax there) becomes:

Your dog needs washing

If we consider the lexical specifications of the quasi-modal verb need, then I hope we can agree that in its canonical form, it takes a complement, which usually surfaces as an object, as in:

I need a taco

It’s also possible for need to take as its complement an S (sentence) beginning with a to-infinitive verb, whose subject is functionally controlled by the subject of the matrix verb, or, if there is one, the object².

Let me put that another way: take a sentence like:

I need to do the washing

The person who does the washing here is the same person who does the needing: I. Whereas in:

I need you to do the washing

The person who does the washing is you instead (if you accede to my request, that is), so the controller of the subject of wash, in each instance, is the nearest argument. I’m getting slightly off-track, so ignore these little tangents relating to LFG and recall what I said about need in its canonical sense taking an object as its complement (I need a taco). Morphosyntactically speaking, a direct object is a noun, so it could be filled by a gerund; the -ing form of the verb that acts as a noun, as in his doing the dishes impressed me. This might be a red herring, but is it possible that the verb in the need verbing construction is in fact a gerund?

This analysis is probably getting a little bit too big for its boots by now, so I might wrap it up. I believe what my brother intended to say was that hook needs to be moved, which, on account of the entirely common needs verbing construction, becomes that hook needs moving. Finally, taking the rough synonymy in this instance of could use and needs, he came out with a slightly more euphemistic sentence that on one hand, implied that I should in fact move the hook while, on the other, cushioning the imposition on me to actually do something³, and produced:

That hook could use moving

Brilliant. Is this how people do construction grammar?


¹It’s quite normally the case that my occasional bursts of intense amusement in totally minor linguistic curios solicit sighs of impending boredom from everyone within earshot. That is, until I met my nibulin⁴, who is also a linguist and is similarly amused, just as intensely, by such things.
²I might be wrong about one or two points of terminology here, such as anapahoric versus functional control as it’s been quite a while since I’ve done any lexical-functional grammar. If you spot anything, let me know.
³There’s an awful lot of speech act theory and conversational politeness theory bound up in that which I don’t really have the time to go into, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
⁴I’m not going to define this for you – if you really desperately want to know what it is you can find the online Wagiman dictionary and look it up.

In a post this morning, I suggested facetiously that the Coalition might prefer to use the term ‘separated’ as opposed to ‘stolen’, in the wording of a formal apology to the victims of some of the more abhorrent assimilationist policies.

The opposition are most concerned over the term Stolen Generation apparently. Perhaps they’d prefer to use Gerard Henderson’s newest euphemism, Separated Generation?

Well, not long after that, this popped up on the ABC News website:

A Liberal backbencher says he would prefer to see “Separated Generations” rather than “Stolen Generations” used in next week’s formal apology to Indigenous Australians.

“I think separated is probably a better word than stolen personally,” [Liberal backbencher Dr Denis Jensen] said.

Perhaps I’m more widely read than I had fancied, or perhaps more likely, Dr Jensen reads Gerard Henderson.

It seems that Gerard Henderson, former culture warrior, has coined a new euphemism in relation to Australia’s indigenous history. Henderson has always disputed the term stolen generation, because the population of stolen aboriginal people hardly comprised an entire generation, so it’s odd that this new euphemism of his retains this word.

Here’s an excerpt from Henderson’s column in today’s Herald:

Most of the separated generation had European or other genes – in addition to indigenous ones. This means that an abject apology would require that some of today’s indigenous Australians apologise to their indigenous predecessors for the actions of some of their European predecessors.

Leaving aside the fact that this is a spurious conclusion, the choice of the word separated is curious, but is glaringly deliberate – Henderson uses it twice in the same article, and all three instances of the term stolen occur either in direct quotes or, in one case, in the name of a lobby group, the Stolen Generations Alliance.

I think Henderson’s intention here is crystal clear; stolen is such a harsh term; it connotes malevolence when, in his view, clearly no such malevolence existed since it cannot be proved with official bureaucratic documentation. But as the rest of us know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Separated though, is far too light a term. Couples separate when they’ve had enough of each other. Potassium nitrate separates when it cools. Breasts are separated (and lifted) with the help of the appropriate undergarments.

Separate, the verb, when applied to humans, implies reciprocal volition, mutual agreement, as it were. The forced removal of aboriginal children from their parents in an effort to effect linguistic and cultural homogeneity, involved no such volition on behalf of either parent or child; these families didn’t actively separate, they were forced apart by racist policy.

Moreover, separated, in its unmarked form, is an unergative verb, it necessitates no agent, no one who causes the sepatation to occur. They separated is far more natural than he separated them.

Stolen however, necessitates that someone, an agent, willfully acted to cause the theft. The forced removals that led to the existence of the stolen generation had an agent; the Australian Government. Thus in my opinion, stolen is a perfectly accurate word to describe what happened to aboriginal children in Australia’s Colonial past.