Of all the ancient Greek words to enter English, 'eúphēmos' must be among the most harmless: roughly translating as 'fair-sounding', this referred to the uttering of good omens. Sounds fair, right? But its descendant, 'euphemism', has come a long way, evolving into the use of an agreeable or inoffensive expression when something unpleasant is meant - and, perhaps unsurprisingly, its use shot up drastically as new media began to bring politicians into closer contact with citizens.

Groping for trout in a peculiar river

The above graph was created with Google Ngram and measures the frequency with which 'euphemism' appears in print compared to all other words. The current plateau was reached in 2008, not long after 'enhanced interrogation' stepped in for 'torture' but several years before 'no-fly zone' was used to refer to NATO's aerial offensive campaign in Libya. Of course, that's not to say that euphemisms themselves are anything new. Shakespeare, for instance, was fond of euphemistic jokes for infidelity, which he termed "pouring treasure into foreign laps" in Othello and "groping for trout in a peculiar river" in Measure for Measure.

On occasion, euphemisms even enter standard vocabulary and replace whatever it is they once obscured. One of the oldest known examples dates back to around 500 BC, when Proto-Germanic tribes in northern Europe developed a fear of their own word for bears: 'hrktos'. Due to a growing belief that saying its name aloud would summon a bear, this word was ritually replaced with 'bera', meaning 'the brown one'. Today, 'hrktos' lives on instead as 'arctic' thanks to the most famous northern constellation, the Bear.

Maintaining plausible deniability

In spite of the long history of euphemisms, many of them light-hearted, more insidious forms may be on the rise. Chris and I covered a contemporary example in March, when we examined Russia's use of 'special military operation' to describe its war of conquest against Ukraine. This euphemism was always intended to sell the conflict to the Russian public, evoking images of the USSR's two-day invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that resulted in fewer than a hundred Russian deaths. With over 200 times this figure having lost their lives in Ukraine so far, new euphemisms include - almost unbelievably - 'goodwill gestures' to describe the collapse of Russian lines.

At the other end of the spectrum is the dog whistle, a coded message intended to be understood clearly by some while maintaining plausible deniability. The physical dog whistle, invented by British polymath Francis Galton, was a tube which produced an adjustable tone to demonstrate that certain frequencies can be heard by dogs but not humans. Incidentally, Galton coined the term 'eugenics' and was a dedicated believer in racial hierarchy. While his views became publicly taboo following the Holocaust, their sentiment lives on in Ronald Reagan's "strapping young bucks buying T-bone steaks with food stamps" or "state's rights" as an explanation of the American Civil War (never mind the right to do what).

Vigilance required

At a time of increasing awareness of political euphemisms, it's tempting to dismiss them as a tool that preaches solely to the converted. But we all have beliefs and biases, and these types of euphemisms work because they frame the issue in accordance with what we already understand. Most people feel strong opposition to the ideals of the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, but opinions on their rallies vary widely when these are described as 'a threat to public safety' versus 'free speech'.

As long ago as the 1960s, researchers demonstrated that confirmation bias affects us all - and that includes you. We all tend to seek information that confirms our existing ideas, which leaves us open to manipulation. Vigilance requires us to seek out opposing viewpoints and always consider what the speaker might want from us, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel. Easier said than done, but the need is well-illustrated in a quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth: "When you know what a man wants, you know who he is and how to move him." After falling victim to euphemistic promises, Macbeth ultimately loses his head in more ways than one.

- Josh