Euphemism at the shops … we can’t talk about price increases

There was a lovely little sign at my local supermarket yesterday … wish I’d had the sense to photograph it.

It was next to the price tag for tomatoes, and went something like this:

Due to unseasonably dry weather in the growing regions, tomatoes are in short supply. This has caused prices to firm. We apologise for any inconvenience.

To me, a ‘firm’ price is a stable one – a price that’s unlikely to change quickly. But, of course, in this situation, ‘firm’ is a euphemism for ‘increase’ (actually, ‘double’ would be closer to the truth).

So, why can’t the supermarket apologise for a ‘high price’ or a ‘price increase’, particularly when it’s caused by something beyond their control and all of the shops are likely to be in a similar situation? I guess it’s because it wouldn’t fit with their marketing as low cost and competitive.

So ‘increase’ or ‘rise’ becomes ‘firm’, the supermarket feels that it’s providing a rationale for the price of tomatoes, and most people won’t even notice the odd use of language.

There’s a lovely section on euphemism in J.P. Davidson’s book ‘Planet Word’ (2011, Penguin). He talks about the way that euphemism is a barometer of society’s changing attitudes. The things that we’re comfortable talking about today haven’t always applied and won’t necessarily continue to apply (think of our increasing acceptance of coarse language in the broadcast media, but our difficulty in discussing some aspects of politics or culture). At the same time, the things that we feel a need to conceal now (such as the rising price of tomatoes) will probably change into the future.

My favourite example of euphemism in Davidson’s book is about Winston Churchill’s experience at a dinner in Richmond, Virginia. Apparently chicken was on the menu, and Churchill asked for a piece of breast. The hostess admonished him with: ‘Mr Churchill, in this country we say white meat and dark meat’. Davidson continues the story by saying that Churchill sent the hostess a corsage the next day, with the message: ‘I would be most obliged if you would pin this on your “white meat”‘.

So, let’s hope that it rains in the growing areas, that tomato prices develop some elasticity, and the elasticity takes the prices down instead of up.