Almost six years ago, the UK’s The Guardian newspaper contained a short article by feature writer Jon Henley – not to be confused with the drummer, and later solo artist, from The Eagles, Don Henley. Entitled A glossary of US military torture euphemisms, it present a short list of words and phrases used by government agencies to talk about things that they really don’t want to talk about. Where most people would define “taking someone by force and holding them against their will” as kidnapping, the military would describe this as special renditions – well, as long as it’s our folks who are doing the rendering! And when “enemy combatants” are subjected to water-boarding or sleep deprivation, this is not torture but enhanced coercive interrogation techniques. “Torture” is what Johnny Foreigner does to our chaps, not what we do to theirs.
Euphemism, from the Greek euphemos (εὔϕημος) meaning “speak well” or “fair of speech,” is a standard tool in politics, and something that George Orwell excoriated in his classic 1946 article, Politics and the English Language, describing it as using language in”the defense of the indefensible.” It’s also a social tool that allows us to talk about sensitive or shocking topics without actually using words that offend our sensibilities or shock. People don’t die, they pass on; they aren’t sacked, they’re let go; they’re not drunk just a little worse for wear; and they are not lying just being economical with the truth.
The general aim of euphemism is to “soften the blow.” Euphemism implicitly recognizes that words are not just a cluster of sounds that transmit meanings but that they can also be carriers of significant emotional content. Shit, crap, dung, poop, and feces are all the same thing – but you wouldn’t use them all with your granny or a Sunday school teacher .
Peculation is a word that should be used more as a euphemism but hasn’t really caught on. It’s defined as;
The appropriation of money or property held in trust for another by a servant, employee, or official; esp. the embezzlement of public funds belonging to a ruler, state, or government.
To all intents and purposes, it is really a more polite and less emotionally laden way of saying embezzlement.
The word made an appearance in 1658 as an entry in a dictionary written by Edward Phillips, defined as; “a robbing of the Prince or Common-wealth.” It appears to have then been used on and off during the 18th and 19th centuries but was much rarer in the 20th. It’s use in the UK’s Daily Telegraph in the phrase;
It would no longer tolerate a form of politics that favoured politicians above people and peculation above principles
seems to be more of a nod toward alliteration than any serious attempt to revive the word.
We can trace it back to post-classical Latin peculatio, the embezzlement of money or property, which in turn comes from classical Latin peculari meaning “to rob or defraud.” Earlier than this was peculium, used to refer to both money and private property. This same root (peculium) is also the origin of the words peculiar, which is an adjective used to describe something “distinguished in nature, character, or attributes from others; unlike others” or “special, remarkable, or distinctive.” The sense is that of a quality that is private to an individual.
Although peculation appeared as a noun in 1658, the word peculator was around two years earlier in 1656, as an entry in the first edition of Thomas Blount’s Glossographia; or, A dictionary interpreting all such hard words, whether Hebrew, Greek or Latin… as are now used in our refined English tongue. By the early 18th century it had slipped on its verbal slippers to appear as to peculate, followed by wearing its adjectival cloaks of peculative (1779) and peculant (1853).
Sadly it’s now more likely to turn up in a spelling bee more than the pages of a newspaper, magazine, book, or web page – unless the web page is talking about the etymology of the word! The mighty Corpus of Contemporary American English has 5 examples from its 450 million word database, and even the mind-bogglingly huge 1.9 billion word sample of the Corpus of Web-based Global English (GloWbE) only turns up 31 instances.
Slim pickings indeed.
 I know that someone reading this will probably have a granny who swears like the proverbial trooper and can use more profanities than the Urban Dictionary can keep up with. However, the point is that we not only choose our words to convey a specific meaning but that we may choose different but similar words based on the context in which we expect to be saying them.