Saying the Unsayable

CDC 7 words imageMaybe you started Saturday the way I did—with a cup of coffee and a serving of more bad news suggesting a further erosion of the truth. Late Friday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the Center for Disease Control from using seven words in official documents: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

According to the Post, officials were informed of the administration’s guidelines during a meeting on Thursday, during which they were also given a list of preferred terms:

Instead of “science-based” or ­“evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.

Follow-up stories were quick to note that the edict extends only to official reports for budgetary purposes, not to the agency’s website. But in a world where a firing has become rightsizing, a badly used car a pre-enjoyed vehicle, and a fetus an unborn baby, euphemisms can “hide the truth” as George Carlin presciently noted in one of his performances:

I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms – or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality (“Why Americans Use Euphemisms”).

Writers are a pesky bunch. Not only do they grapple with reality every time they set down words on the page, they also hate being told what they can or can’t say. It was with this in mind that I posted a writing challenge to my Facebook friends: “Write a sestina using six of the prohibited words, the seventh as your title.” To say the unsayable, as if were, and what better way to say the words than in a repetitive form like the sestina?

Among the many poets and writers who shared or commented on my post was Amy Lemmon: “We need an anthology!” she said. While Amy declined my offer to edit the anthology, she created a WordPress site – The CDC Poetry Project. Starting this week, we’re actively soliciting poems that say the seven words and do so in a way that speaks truth to power.

–Sarah Freligh

“Why Americans Use Euphemisms-VOA Learning English.”

Sarah Freligh, the recipient of an NEA fellowship in poetry, is the author of Sad Math (Moon City Press, 2015). She is currently at work on a novel, Half-Past Crazy.