Pre-Owned or Preposterous?

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Jay Dolmage’s recent Bits post on double-speak happens to overlap with a popular cultural phenomenon that I have long pondered: namely, the widespread cultural tendency to engage in evasive and euphemistic language.  This tendency is not limited to politicians and celebrities; it is well-nigh universal. When used car dealers find that they have a better chance of selling “pre-owned” cars than the “used” kind, and mass market grocery items are called “Private Selection,” something highly significant is going on.  And that’s yet another place where semiotics comes in. The range of euphemism in America is vast. Painful subjects, like death and racial conflict, are euphemistically glossed over. No one dies anymore; people “pass.” And rather than refer to race, our common discourse prefers the more comfortable, but much different word, “culture” (I explain to my students that people of different race can share a culture, and that while “race” is a highly contested and problematic demographic category, to argue that it is determinative of cultural consciousness is to trod some very thin ice indeed). At the very least, this tendency to euphemism impedes sound critical thinking (we can hardly think clearly about something when we are unable to clearly identify what we are thinking about: I’m with Orwell). At the worst, it can backfire into backlash and nasty accusations of “political correctness.” The cultural significance of these sorts of euphemism (there are many more, but the topic is so sensitive that it isn’t wise even to point them out) is fairly straightforward: a fundamentally optimistic people (please read Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America), Americans are so ill-equipped to face the painful realities of their history and fundamental existence that they turn to euphemistic evasions that solve nothing but do make people feel better. The tendency to market used and/or mass-market goods under such labels as “pre-owned” and “Private Selection” (I also like the mass-market outerwear line “Members Only”) points to a different significance: namely the fundamental contradiction in American life between our populist egalitarianism and an American dream that urges us to rise above the crowd and stand alone upon the social heights. (I write about this at length in my essay “Masters of Desire: The Culture of American Advertising,” from my books Signs of Life in the U.S.A. and The Signs of Our Time.) Thus, even as we celebrate American democracy, we long for something that isn’t democratic at all: social distinction. And the proof of this lies in our attraction to “pre-owned” and privately selected, Hunt-Club quality, goods. As a free cycler who just babied my battered old pickup truck through another smog check so I can eke another year’s service out of it, these sorts of appeals don’t work for me (I admit it: I am still attracted to the “inverse snobbery” that was once popular among us baby boomers in the 1960s). But these appeals wouldn’t appear if they weren’t working for masses of consumers. I do wish that people would demand that their used cars be called used cars and that their store brand goods be called store brand goods, but with the increasing fascination with inherited wealth (move over Paris, here come the Kardashians) this is unlikely.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.