On A “Person of Interest” and Other Euphemisms

by Jamison Koehler on August 12, 2010

My father hates euphemisms.  A retired English professor, he is a purist when it comes to language.  He believes you should say what you mean to say.

This distaste for euphemisms has sometimes led to discomfort on my part.  It makes a man I know to be open-minded and liberal occasionally sound like a bigot. For example, he hates the term “differently-abled” to describe people we might once have called “handicapped” or, worse, “crippled.”  And he says so every time he hears the term. Loudly. It’s not that he would prefer one of the latter terms.  It is that he feels that “differently-abled” is intellectually dishonest.

I thought of my father this morning upon learning that police have taken a man into custody in connection with the racially-motivated attacks in Leesburg. The police announced that the man is a “person of interest.” I am not sure if this term is a substitute for what you would expect him to be called – “suspect” — or if it is supposed to suggest some lesser degree of suspicion. In any event, it is a euphemism.  The only reason the man has been taken into custody is that he is suspected of committing a crime.  We should call him that.  A “person of interest” suggests to me that the police want to find out about his hobbies or favorite football team on Facebook.

4 Comments on “On A “Person of Interest” and Other Euphemisms

  1. When I used to work at the newspaper, I was pretty close with the crime reporter and I asked this question of her once. (She eventually went on to become Public Information Officer at our capitol’s city police department.)
    Here’s the answer she gave me, in so many words:
    When police call someone a “person of interest” it’s hedging their bets. They usually suspect that the person was at/witnessed/helped in the main crime, but don’t want to claim (yet) that they were the prime person involved. They can also use that as bargaining power if the “person of interest” doesn’t want to implicate someone else — to the lines of “look, we didn’t even call you a suspect, this can all go away if you tell us blablablah.”
    I tend to believe her. Even though we worked in the “media,” thereby gaining the ire of the State, she got along with the local police very well, and they were more loose-lipped with her because when she said “off the record,” she meant it.

  2. Fair enough, JW. A “person of interest” could be a potential witness or someone else with knowledge about the offense. But they don’t take these people into custody. The only person they take into custody is someone against whom there is pretty good evidence. And that person they should at least call a suspect.

  3. But jamison, wouldn’t you agree that many would lambast the police if they called someone a suspect and then released him after discovering he was innocent? Reputation ruined and all that. Is it possible that the police are trying to do the right thing and not label the person? Maybe prevent the press from labeling him guilty before they (the police) are themselves sure?
    I don’t know, old bean, but it does seem a tad unfair to criticize the police for tempering their language when I know they’d be hammered by the defense bar if they really did say what they thought: “this dude’s guilty as sin.”

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