Adjust size of text


Follow us and continue the conversation

Your saved articles

You haven't saved any articles

What are you looking for?

A cigarette or HeatStick? How Phillip Morris deceives us with euphemisms

John Safran
Print this

Published: 6 September 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

In this extract from his new book, JOHN SAFRAN asks Professor of Linguistics Ghil’ad Zuckermann how the tobacco company manipulates the layman

PROFESSOR GHIL’AD ZUCKERMANN is Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide. Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and I want to talk to him about the way Philip Morris have been manipulating language.

When I arrive at his office, I see that cheeky humour is one of the endangered languages he spends his time with. He’s in trouble for sticking a poster to his door that promoted etymology – the study of the origins of words – which joked that the origin of “studying” is not “student dying”.

“Just my door. It was not put up around the university.” He’s defending himself over the phone to a higher-up on campus. I gather they’re concerned it will trigger students, perhaps plant suicidal thoughts in them, like an Ozzy Osbourne record spun backwards.

But students wishing to leap out of a window will have to find someplace other than Professor Zuckermann’s office – his window is blocked by piles of books, as he’s run out of space in the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that stretch along the walls.

Over the next three days he’ll drive hundreds of kilometres, along the coast, to Port Lincoln. He hopes to convince school principals to begin teaching a local Indigenous language, Barngarla. He has spent the last ten years working with Barngarla people on a dictionary.

After sitting through one more conference call about the “student dying” poster fiasco, we climb into his SUV and he backs it out of his parking spot.

“We had a party for our son,” he says, turning onto the road. Professor Zuckermann may be a pointy headed intellectual but his face is round, and he has a ponytail. “We had 200 people, but none of them were Aboriginal, because my Aboriginal friends are eight hours from here. And my wife had a birthday cake.”

She wanted to light the candles. “I asked 200 people, none of them had a lighter, none of them had a match. None of them smoked. The next day I was in Port Augusta, teaching a class in the Barngarla language to 50 Aboriginal people. Then we had the break. Yeah. Fifty people smoked.”

Professor Zuckermann has more. As we leave the city, he talks of a friend, an Aboriginal man. “I was at the hospital visiting Simon, who was dying of lung cancer. I came and I was the only whitefella there – five people around the bed, his son, nieces, nephews. The doctor comes and says, I would like to explain to you the situation. Simon smoked for 50 years and this is why he’s dying now. And now it went to the oesophagus, he cannot eat. He will die in two days. Then the doctor leaves.

Language is so much more powerful than the layman understands. Philip Morris – they understand it more than the layman.

Everyone’s shaken up and anxious. And one of his nephews was, “Okay, we need a break.” So we go to the patio of the hospital and everybody gets a smoke. And I said, “What?” He says, “Yeah, we’ve heard a horrible story, we need to calm down with a smoke.”’

We drive for hours and stop in Whyalla. My dolphin history has been a series of people excitedly pointing far into the ocean, but I can never see them. Here on the pier in Whyalla, they’re so close I could lie down and reach them with my hand. I finally see dolphins. I’m pretty happy.

“Is there any precedent for this?” I ask Professor Zuckermann. “I always assumed that what happens is people on the streets, regular people, they start expressing themselves in certain ways. And then that gets codified after the fact by highbrow dictionaries. But maybe I’ve got that wrong, or maybe it’s different now.”

“Your question about this manipulation by Philip Morris is a wonderful question, touches upon a number of huge things in linguistics.”

That flattery is going in the book. I look down and note the timecode on my recorder.

“One is called Whorfianism.” The theory is named after linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. “It’s the idea that language dictates-influences the way we think.”

Professor Zuckermann speaks with an Israeli accent and I mishear ‘slash’ as ‘flesh’. I prefer my mishearing: language dictates flesh!

After all, that’s what I felt in my bones upon first hearing the word HeatStick: “The word’s not grassroots and organic, it’s top down and calculated. Created and deployed to change the meaning of what a cigarette is and isn’t. Which in turn can change facts in the flesh and blood world.”

Language dictates flesh!

A world-renowned linguist agrees with me, provided I mishear him.

The Jewish Independent

The dolphins squeak and Professor Zuckerman tells me about a colleague of his who’s looked into words bending our perception of reality.

“I have a friend who conducted research about the word ‘bridge’.” Unlike English, many languages assign genders to objects. “The word bridge is masculine in Italian (il ponte). In German, it is feminine (die Brücke). This friend of mine, she found out that, subconsciously, when Italians talk about a bridge, they describe it as sturdy, as strong.

When Germans speaks about a bridge, they describe it as elegant, as beautiful. And she argued that it’s because of the gender, the grammatical gender. ‘Brücke’ makes you feel that bridges are elegant and ‘ponte’ makes you feel that bridges are sturdy.”

Without knowing it’s happening, reality is morphed by the words that we hear. They bend what we see with our eyes.

He has another example of words bending perception. He was born in Tel Aviv, and he says that Zionists did this when establishing the modern state of Israel in 1948.

 “Mishkan, in the Bible, was the place where you worship God, where the Temple was, where the Ten Commandments were,” he explains. ”What Zionism did is they took this word that evokes sacredness and they decided to use it to describe the building where the Knesset members sit.”

With Philip Morris, there is a combination of scientific cluelessness by people and linguistic manipulation. It’s very combustible.

The Knesset is modern-day Israel’s national legislature. He says that the word Mishkan draws Israelis to subconsciously feel that a sacredness and divinity hangs over the Knesset. Something they wouldn’t feel if it was just named “the Knesset building”.

I came to discuss a corporation, but he won’t stop talking about religion to explain how language is used to lull us into someone else’s reality.

“What is religion? Religion, if you want, is the control of language to achieve power.”

We stroll to a lookout and look at the ocean through mounted binoculars. I feel we’ve done this the wrong way around, because nothing beats getting nose-to-nose with a dolphin.

“When they found a suicide bomber in Israel, he was 14 years old, and they saw that his penis was wrapped with white cloth,” he says. “And the army asked him why. He said, my mother told me that when I go to paradise, I need my penis to be ready for the 72 virgins.”

But he explains that there might be a misunderstanding at play. “Now the word ‘houri’ is usually considered to mean a virgin.” He says some linguists claim it never meant this. Rather, it meant raisins. “In the time of the Qur’an, white raisins were very rare in Saudi Arabia. So they said, okay, you will get 72 white raisins.”

Professor Zuckermann locks his eyes on me.

“If that is true, do you understand the implications on world history?” He brings up September 11. “All the suicide bombers that did it because they believed that they were going to get virgins?

He won’t stop talking about religion to explain how language is used to lull us into someone else’s reality.

“I mean, you would have had many less people doing all this bullshit, because they’d say, I’m not going to do it for sultanas.”

We start wandering back to his SUV.

“Language is so much more powerful than the layman understands. And I think that religious leaders, politicians – and Philip Morris – they understand it more than the layman. And this is why they manage to control.”

He can see things from Philip Morris’s perspective.

“I can understand they just want to survive. But obviously there is a very big manipulation here. And the only good thing you can say about it is that the manipulators understand the nature of language. And the nature of language is such that it gives you power, if you know how to use it.”

The sun bears down. A bug kamikazes into my side of the windscreen.

We draw closer to Port Lincoln.

Professor Zuckermann says sneaking in and flipping “cigarette” for “HeatStick” could be seen as Philip Morris simply engaging in the art of euphemism. It’s been a while since we consulted a dictionary: “a mild or indirect word substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt.

“But it’s not only a euphemism. When you say, I’m not going to shit, I’m going to ‘number two’, then everybody knows you’re going to shit. So this is a euphemism. Or, I’m not going to ‘fuck her’, I’m going to ‘make love to her’.

“So everybody knows that you’re going to penetrate her with your penis. Those cases, they change our perception of reality through a euphemism. But in this case, with the HeatStick, I would argue that this euphemism is even more than changing our perception of reality, it’s changing reality.”

The difference? He says that the public knows what a shit is but not the nuances of tobacco, nicotine, smoke and tar.

“I think that in the case of Philip Morris, there is a very good combination of scientific cluelessness by people and linguistic manipulation. It’s very combustible.”

He’s pulled it all together for me. Even threw in a nice allusion to cigarettes.

This is an extract from Puff Piece, by John Safran, published by Penguin Books

READ REVIEW OF PUFF PIECE (Mark Dapin/The Australian)

About the author

John Safran

John Safran is an Australian writer and filmmaker. His books include Murder in Mississippi and Depends What You Mean by Extremist; his idiosyncratic documentaries include ‘John Safran vs God’ and ‘Jedis & Juggalos’.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

Enter site