The search for a douce euphemism


The Bedroom Tax is:

  • a tax specifically-imposed on the less-privileged in our society: effectively a selective Poll Tax;
  • it relates to a count of “bedrooms” (as currently legally defined) in social housing;
  • an ad-man’s wet dream of a memorable slogan — note how it fits the mouth, has emphatic initial consonants (a plosive and a dental, since you didn’t ask) and a spitting final fricative.


  • the shorthand definition is relevant, accurate;


  • so hurtful, its mealy-mouthed Tory instigators require its tone be tailored, tonsured, buffed, puffed, glossed and glozed.

A Malcolmian mutter:

In the mouth and the ear, the usage is given effect because of its neat stressed-unstressed-stressed trisyllabic rhythm. Malcolm’s classical education reminds him this is the “cretic” metrical foot, which — as the wikipedia entry reminds us — is a natural for “advertising slogans and adages”.

Too late with the stable door

First circumlocution was David Cameron’s alliterative but “clunky” “spare room subsidy”.

Run “spare-room subsidy” through the parsing mincer, and we get:

  • a plodding spondee (two stressed syllables) then the cretic. Five syllables instead of the more natural and graspable three;
  • a hissing triple-“s”: itself adding a quite unpleasant alliteration;
  • an abstract and officialese “subsidy” instead of the more-easily understood (and detested) “tax”.
  • It is inaccurate. After all, the tax applies , not to “spare rooms”, but only and specifically to bedrooms.

Malcolm happily defers to professional wordsmith, James Kirkup, for the reason why Cameron and his paid cohorts sought to change the name:

OK, it’s something you’d expect a political writer to say, but in politics, words matter. What you call something — and what others call it — can have enormous significance.

Remember the Community Charge? Of course not: it became the Poll Tax, a rather different proposition. Remember the billions that Labour spent on the public sector? For many years, that spending was successfully described as “investment”; even ministers in today’s government are prone to that sort of lexical massaging when they want to cast spending in a positive light.

So the verbal row over withdrawing some money from some people in social housing who have more bedrooms than permanent occupants matters. In Whitehall, this is called an under-occupancy penalty, or sometimes an under-occupancy measure …

Notice the deft misuse of terms: “under-occupancy”, “penalty”, “measure”: in this abomination of language, a spade no longer a spade, but dignified into “a horticultural appliance”.

It doesn’t work, does it? 

Despite endless repetitions, enforced upon arm-twisted sub-editors of the Tory Press and — even, heaven help us — at the BBC, the harsh truth and the natural term term kept creeping through.

Well, the Tory cunning linguists are having another go, and reviving “under-occupancy penalty“.  This time at “Lord” Ashcroft’s It won’t work — nine syllables rather than three, two abstracts and nothing for the ear or the memory to grab onto.

You see, the problem with these shape-shifting circumlocutions and periphrases is — they aren’t Orwellian enough:

Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

Even as we muse, we can be assured Grant Shapps (Grade A in CDT at O-level, or perhaps not) is applying his Great Intellect, and casting yet another calculating eye at the problem.

The all-seeing Grant Shapps

The all-seeing Grant Shapps

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Filed under advertising., Conservative family values, David Cameron, James Kirkup, Labour Party, politics, Quotations, social class, Tories.

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