We are told by Stephen Kranz, brother of Paula Broadwell, the hagiographer-turned-mistress who has brought down General Petraeus, that she’s “incredibly sorry” for hurting her family and “knows she made a mistake.” “Mistake”, eh? When did a “mistake” cease to mean some error you’d made in sums or spelling and become the euphemism for anything bad you’ve been found out doing?
In another news story today it was used by Foyez Ahmed, who lost his temper with his sister-in-law, beat her with a dumbbell bar and then cut her throat because he was feeling bad about his career prospects. He told the police: “I’m not a proper murderer, I haven’t done it before, this is the first time. I don’t know what I did but I now realise I made a serious mistake."
“Misspeak” as a euphemism for telling porkies crept up on us too. No longer does it mean a slip of the tongue. I first noticed it when on the campaign trail Hillary Clinton referred to coming under sniper fire in Bosnia. When challenged later with irrefutable evidence that this had simply not happened, she explained pellucidly: “I say a lot of things – millions of words a day – so if I misspoke, that was just a misstatement." Since then, it’s been employed by all manner of public figures caught out lying.
I checked out St Paul’s list in Galatians 5.20-21 of the sins of the flesh to see if any required further euphemisms: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, sedations, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness and ravellings. Nope. It looks to me as if they’re all covered by “mistake” or “misspeak”. So no one has to admit to committing any sins any more. Isn’t progress wonderful?
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Ruth Dudley Edwards