The Euphemistic framing effect


The news media uses an increasing slew of neologisms that have become a part of the contemporary lexicon. Instead of indulging in plain speak, most of what we read appears to significantly attenuate and sometimes obscure the full meaning of what is being conveyed.

Consider the word “Undocumented immigrant”: Immigrant is defined by Webster dictionary as:

A person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence


A plant or animal that becomes established in an area where it was previously unknown

I think we can ignore the immigration travails of plants or animals for the purpose of this discussion. I choose not to elucidate the definition of undocumented. If you need to look it up you are probably a plant or an animal and you have bigger problems to worry about.

Now back to the word Undocumented immigrant: this is an oxymoron, you can’t take up permanent residence in a country if you do not have the requisite documents. In the same vein “illegal immigrant” is a redundancy. You do not expect to take up permanent residence in a country that you are illegally residing in. If you do, you may be a plant or an animal. The most accurate non-euphemistic descriptor is “illegal alien” but those who use this, do so at the peril of being called racists, bigots or something worse.

I am no immigration expert, but neither are the scores of self-appointed people who continue to use the word undocumented immigrant. I am an immigrant, and by virtue of my own immigration journey, have a unique first-hand view of what it is like to come to this country legally or be a “documented immigrant” (which is also a redundancy). I also have access to a dictionary. Yes we are a country of immigrants, but more importantly we are a country of laws first. If we weren’t, the need to use the word “undocumented” or “illegal” would not exist in the first place. The very use of these adjectives implies an infraction of the law. What these words do is mitigate the full import of what is being discussed. This is a deliberate attempt by the writers to frame the discussion by placing the emphasis on the word immigrant; the adjective that precedes it, seems to only offer validation of the individual’s immigrant status. Most people seldom see the negative adjective modifier that precedes it. I have no desire to discuss the humanity of illegal immigration; it is a very sensitive issue and I cannot imagine or place myself in their shoes. The focus of my ire is directed against the deliberate obfuscation of facts.

As an exercise in absurdity, consider the following thought experiment regarding additional euphemistic neologisms:

Why isn’t the person who deals in street opiate pills an “undocumented pharmacist”?

Why isn’t the squatter who lives in another person’s home an “undocumented tenant”?

Why isn’t a Columbian cocaine cartel leader a “cocoa alkaloid entrepreneur”?

Why isn’t the airplane hijacker an “undocumented pilot”?

Why isn’t the religious zealot wearing a bomb vest an “undocumented detonations expert”?

In each of these examples, the nouns pharmacist, tenant, entrepreneur, pilot and expert have positive connotations. They do not convey menace; they reframe what is sinister into a benign appellation. The adjectives that precede these words do little to give any additional information, and the reader uses the positive connotation of the noun as a focal point. You do not see undocumented pilot or undocumented pharmacist mentioned by the media because they are not likely to become a huge future voting block that could at some point influence election results. So their plight is of little concern to anyone. Now if by some bizarre process there were 11.1 million hijackers that lived in the US, you might see more media references to them being pilots. There would also be no real pilots left, which would be a huge crippling problem

Such is the power of euphemistic framing. The media has perfected the art of framing every story to redirect the reader’s perception. This helps propel political agenda in the direction of their choosing. Euphemization can be associated with and help propagate disinformation. Subliminal stealth is the artifice by which collective thought and behavior can be controlled. Those who can read critically have a chance at objective appraisal of facts. The rest of us are consigned to become plants and animals or at least behave like them.

I am no expert at framing or euphemisms. But there are experts who have published in peer reviewed journals and have reached similar conclusions.

Ryabova, Marina. “Euphemisms and media framing.” European Scientific Journal 9.32 (2013).

2 thoughts on “The Euphemistic framing effect

  1. Amazing analysis of media’s contortion. You should consider decreasing the length of the article. It is very long.

  2. Good piece. Very accurate portrayal of what I’ve been calling the Democrats’ War on Words.

    This is why any argument that a liberal is losing invariably turns into a semantic one. Every single time.

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