Challenges/Challenged

In its original sense, the verb CHALLENGE was positively crimson with menace. Derived from the Anglo-Norman word for “calumny,” it described the kind of mortal affront that led men into duels. It has by now been so thoroughly emasculated that, with all its remaining fangs bared, it could not frighten the neighbor’s cat, much less provoke anyone to arms.

In its domesticated state, some might argue that there is no real offense in using CHALLENGE. Jargon it certainly is not. Yet its meaning is so diffuse and all-inclusive-on a par, perhaps, with that ubiquitous placeholder appropriate-that it serves, like many jargon words, to convey a false impression that something has been revealed or some position taken.

In fact, when most people speak of mincing words, they are referring to expressions like “challenging litigation,” or “fiscal challenges.” In each case, the reality is far more troublesome than the cowardly expression conscripted to its service. The unintentional but certain message of those euphemisms is that the writer is too effete or timid to speak frankly about being hauled into court or impending bankruptcy.

A writer friend of mine first drew my attention to these expressions with this note:

“Physically challenged,” introduced a few years ago, was one of those well-intentioned terms that invited ridicule almost as soon as it hit the page. People were jokingly calling short people “vertically challenged” within a week. It’s arguable that this euphemism has caused more harm than good to the dignity of disabled people.

Injuries and disabilities aren’t the only tough subjects that have been swept under the CHALLENGE carpet. The euphemism has likewise made its way into business papers, civic plans, and, most of all, foundation documents, whenever unpleasant realities threaten to rile the mighty. “Scaling up this demonstration project is fraught with challenges” almost certainly means that the odds of a successful expansion are one in ten. “The grantee is coping with organizational challenges” means it’s time to send in the auditors. Strategic plans rarely speak of “risks” or “dangers” any more, at least in the more genteel circles. Everything’s a “challenge,” and, thanks to that, the people who might be tackling and solving problems are instead left, like the neighbor’s cat, to purr unworried and unwarned.

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