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Partly Cloudy Became Partly Sunny

Pauline Nevins  May 27, 2020 - The Union


Where’s George Carlin when you need him? I thought about George recently. This controversial irreverent stand-up comedian, who died over a decade ago, would have been 83 this not-so-merry month of May.

I’m not in the habit of dwelling on the birthdays of famous people — dead or alive — but George popped into my consciousness, triggered by COVID-19 phrases.

George might have referred to these new phrases as “soft language.” If you watch his “language” performance on YouTube, you’ll know what I mean. George, you’ll learn, hated euphemisms. He claims they’ve become more prevalent with each generation, designed to shield Americans from facing reality. Prowling across the stage, his words punctuated with forceful gestures, his eyes wide, he gives examples:

After World War I, the excruciating trauma suffered by many returning soldiers was called “Shell Shock” — “simple, honest, direct language,” says George. Hearing those words we can picture an artillery shell and the shock to the nervous system this exploding bombardment would have on soldiers.


The real words, the hard words, might move us to change things. Fast forward to World War II, and George reminds us that this same trauma was now called “Battle Fatigue” — a softer explanation — “fatigue is a nicer word than shock.” Moving on to Korea we have “Operational Exhaustion.” “The humanity has been completely squeezed out of the phrase, it’s totally sterile now,” he laments. And then there was Vietnam — “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” — “and the pain is completely buried under jargon” — reduced to four initials, PTSD.

George has lighter moments. The weather forecasts, he asserts, have morphed — “partly cloudy became partly sunny … the dump became the landfill.” And because of Americans’ fear of death, he says reaching skyward, “I won’t have to die — I’ll pass away — or I’ll expire like a magazine subscription.”

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