Pop goes the euphemism

I have just been to collect a prescription from the pharmacist, and was asked to wait for 20 minutes ‘while we pop your prescription together for you’. I noticed that the medicine was already in a container in its packaging, so I asked what ‘pop’ (in this rather startling and creative metaphor, although presumably not of pop or ‘blind’ riveting) actually meant here. The woman behind the counter said it needed to have a label and to be checked by the duty pharmacist. She was perfectly polite and helpful; I am only objecting to the use of the word ‘pop’. I have noticed that ‘pop’ is a great favourite among every dentist, nurse and doctor I go to see. It almost always precedes something painful or unpleasant.

I have been wondering if euphemism training is given to healthcare professionals: ‘Removal of teeth is always less troublesome if you first suggest your clients “pop” on to the chair’; ‘We recommend you always ask your patient to “pop” their sleeve up, then a centimetre of steel under their skin won’t feel uncomfortable’; ‘Examination for prostate cancer is really not at all embarrassing if you ask your patients to “pop” on to the couch.’

I think we are all at some level grateful for their underlying discomfort at our discomfort; underneath there is empathy, even if reversed to a kind of sardonic (the etymology is fascinating and highly relevant) hypo-professionalism. Real meaning: ‘I am embarrassed to have to do this to you, but I am afraid I will burn out my human empathy if I stay with that feeling, so I am going to cut myself off from you to protect myself.’ At times of pain or fear, though, I think we would all prefer something such as ‘I’m sorry this is going to be uncomfortable or painful. The feeling is not going to last for long. I understand you’re scared. Thank you for being brave. Based on my experience and expertise, I really believe you will feel better in the long run.’

I have now therefore completely lost my immunity to the ‘pop’ euphemism. And, like a verbal superbug, the word is now starting to spread outside its original primary healthcare context.

I wonder if it isn’t in the long-term interests of healthcare professionals – who already have high enough incidences of drug abuse, depression, alcoholism, smoking and job burn-out – to help find sustainable ways to deal with the communication and humanity breakdown that spins out from the simple verb ‘pop’.

I have started telling people who use the word on me that I am allergic to it. This usually raises a smile. Laughter – from a sense of shared humanity – is an attempt at healing, isn’t it?

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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