Turmoil in the Middle East; rise in demand: These are some of the reasons cited by airlines when they added a fuel surcharge, a flat fee applied across the board, to all airline tickets this week. While it is reasonable to expect transportation costs to rise when fuel is expensive, airlines have a history of keeping their rates high after market factors cease to impact prices. Our interest isn’t really in corporate behavior but the particular use of the word “surcharge” by the airlines. The media and consumer groups have focused on this equivocal language as a way of blunting their true action: raising ticket prices. What other ways can one describe language that cloaks true meaning?
Tweens and teens tend to use hyperbole, otherwise known as an exaggeration, to overstate a case. “You’ve said that a million times already.” The hyper- prefix comes from Greek and means “excessive.” Deliberate exaggeration is actually the opposite of equivocation: hyperbole tends to make a point by bluntly, obtusely presenting the evidence for one’s case.
Charging someone with obfuscation is serious business, so many of the phrases used to do so are formal and ancient. Another Latin phrase for equivocation, this one widely used in American law, is suppressio veri, or “concealment of truth.”
So, how about some more everyday words for when people use misleading language? “Weasel words” is an Americanism that paints a vivid picture of cowardly deception. Just as someone can be “smart like a fox,” the weasel’s sinewy body and quick movements give us a metaphore for cunning, sneaky behavior.
Can you think of other examples where meaning is used to actually obscure other meaning? Let us know.