word of mouth shame

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The Independent Online
The words "shame" and "ashamed" have crossed my lips more than usual this past week, as often as not in the company of others such as appeasement, cynical and bastards. Shame, from the Old English sceamu, a word as ancient as the language itself. We must have needed it from the outset.

The greater the shame, the more likely it is to call on its cousin in public relations, euphemism. "Ethnic cleansing", now there's a euphemism. We keep using the term because we lack the word that the euphemism "ethnic cleansing" is covering for. That's what happens with shame; it makes you tongue-tied.

Not that we haven't been here before. There were the Highland "clearances", a nice, tidy word for driving the crofters off their land. Oliver Cromwell, who as a puritan put a premium on cleanliness, "transplanted" the Catholic Irish to the barren wastes of Connaught in the west of Ireland. Torquemada, founder of the Spanish Inquisition, sought to "purge" Spain at the stake of his autos da fe. Interesting that the second part of his name (quemada) is Spanish for "burnt"; destiny, I suppose. Stalin, who put Torquemada in the shade when it came to purges, "ethnically cleansed" vast areas of the Soviet Union in what were termed "resettlement programmes".

But no one took to cleanliness quite like the Nazis. Fuelled by their fantasies of a blue-eyed, if pagan, Aryan past, they set about the national housework in order to maintain "racial hygiene" and achieve "ethnic purity". Adopting the language of public health officials, they declared "cleansed" areas Judenrein (free of Jews). But in the catechism of shame it is hard to beat "final solution", a euphemism arrived at by the algebra of evil.

I realise that these days grown-ups don't use words like evil, and that while we were watching war crimes live on prime-time TV, the Prime Minister was setting up a sporty photo opportunity. But I have this feeling that in 50 years' time, just as President Chirac has finally admitted that Vichy France was an enthusiastic participant in the final solution, some politician - one of "ours" - will be laying a wreath at Srebrenica or Zepa. And they'll make a speech and say something about shame, our shame. I'm not sure there's a word for this feeling; let's call it pre-emptive disgust.