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Let the euphemisms go begging

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- John Leo, the U.S. News & World Report columnist, poked fun recently at the American penchant for such euphemisms and "upscale name changes" as the current campaign to recast the Florida Panhandle as "Florida's Great Northwest." The reason, he wrote, is that "some residents think their area's name leaves the impression that panhandling is the major local activity."

Leo had that example only half right. It's not the local residents who want an etymological facelift. It's the work of the giant St. Joe Co., an absentee land owner and developer headquartered at Jacksonville. Though St. Joe owns more of the Panhandle than any entity other than the U.S. government, the venerable place name is as conspicuously absent from the company's literature as the word "gambling" in a casino promo. (More on that later.)

As it happens, panhandling in the begging sense is exactly what St. Joe is up to at the moment. As this newspaper and other media have reported, the St. Joe Co. is the major force behind a proposed new airport, which would be twice as large as Tampa's, to be built on its land near Panama City, and to move inland a four-mile section of U.S. Highway 98 in Franklin County, so that St. Joe can replace it with a "natural beachfront trail system" to attract upscale home buyers.

You, the taxpayer, will be paying for most of this. St. Joe is well fixed with both the Washington and Tallahassee branches of the Bush dynasty.

The Panhandle needs a new airport about as much as the Sahara needs snowplows. Panama City already has a sorely underused airport, with a new terminal built just seven years ago. The case for the road is no better.

That's total gall panhandling. No wonder the company is sensitive to the word.

* * *

Speaking of euphemisms, Floridians are in for a daily dose of "video lottery," which is the gambling racket's term of art for electronic slot machine. These are being peddled in the interest of "gaming," not "gambling."

That's like calling a cesspool a parfumerie and pretending that it improves the smell.

The "video lottery" euphemism first appears in the Nexis database in connection with the New York state lottery's 1981 attempt to set up 300 card-playing video game machines. The lottery division canceled the project after then-Attorney General Robert Abrams ruled that the machines "are in reality slot machines and thus are barred by the state Constitution."

But you'll hear only "video lottery" from the lips of the legislators and lobbyists who want to legalize these devices in Florida and give the race tracks a monopoly on them.

Now as always, slot machines are a sucker's bet. But you can bet safely on this: Any politician who calls them a "video lottery" knows better. He also thinks you don't.

Speaking of politicians, Johnnie Byrd, the new speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, raised lots of eyebrows by saying the Legislature would probably have to consider the slots as a palliative for the state's budget crisis. That didn't square with his reputation as a social conservative. A couple of days later, Byrd issued a statement to set the record straight.

"I do not support the expansion of gambling in Florida," he said. "I believe that we should build a better Florida based on the strengths of people and not their weaknesses. There are significant social costs to the expansion of gambling and any expansion of gambling should not be mistaken as a quick fix for any budgetary problems."

But by then the House had already approved new rules that, among other things, establish a subcommittee on "gaming and parimutuels." Gaming? Score one for the gamblers.

William Safire looked into that bit of wordplay in his "On Language" column in the March 14, 1999, New York Times Magazine. Gaming vs. gambling had become a litmus test with the conservative Committee to Restore American Values, an ad hoc group that was vetting Republican candidates for president: One of its questions: "Do you normally call games of chance gambling or gaming?"

Safire's etymological research showed that gaming is actually the older word; gambling came into English usage two centuries later. But in modern times, he wrote, the differences have become clear. "Both sides agree: gambling has a negative connotation, gaming, a positive one."

Gaming might reasonably describe card games like poker or blackjack, where mathematical skill can make a difference (at least until the casino kicks the card counter out.) But of course there is no skill in playing the slots, which is where most of the gambling money goes those days.

Do you hear people talk about gaming on the stock market or gaming in real estate? No.

Here's another sure bet. The politicians who call it gaming favor gambling. Those who call it gambling oppose it no matter what it's called.

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