In this case, tire tracks on his underwear was not a euphemism. It was an accurate description.

It was our 15th annual “guys golf weekend” and we needed to get out of town by 5:00 AM to make our eight o’clock tee time. We had just finished tying down and tarping Bill’s pickup when we realized we had forgotten to pack Bob’s suitcase. Doing it right would have meant untying all the ropes, removing the tarp, and then putting it all back together again. To save time, we crammed the suitcase in a low spot near the tailgate. Although it was on top of the tarp, it looked so secure that Bob uttered what turned out to be a notably un-prophetic statement, “There ain’t no way it’s coming out.”

Since it was still dark, none of us saw it blow out of the truck. However, someone in one of the trailing cars did see it lying in the roadway and called to tell us to turn around. When we got back to Bob’s bag, it was still intact. But that changed quickly as we watched a semi plow through it, scatter the contents, and then run over the debris will all eighteen wheels. There were quite a few jokes about what happened, but the topper came that evening when Bob held up a pair of tighty-whities with a perfect tire track imprinted on them.

What made the whole thing so funny was the fact that a figurative expression all of a sudden became a literal one. I smile and think about that every time I play golf, because my bag tag is made out of a piece of Bob’s old suitcase. It is a visual reminder of the duplicity of many euphemisms and the fact that they are not just innocuous figures of speech. As my favorite comedian George Carlin so emphatically declared, “I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms or euphemistic language, and American English is loaded with euphemisms.”

Unfortunately, financial services is one of the more euphemistically laden industries, especially when it comes to names and titles. As the SEC warns, “…we believe that certain names and titles… contribute to retail investor confusion about the distinction among different firms and investment professionals, and thus could mislead retail investors.” Over the years, financial professionals have called themselves financial planners, wealth managers, and most recently financial advisors, none of which are legal terms. The names change because, according to Ruth Wajnryb, “Euphemisms have a short shelf life—once the stigma of the original catches up to them, the battery that runs the euphemistic device goes flat. The only way forward is to invent a new euphemism.”

The SEC points out that names and titles, “…may be granted by private organizations, …may be simply purchased, or even made up by financial professionals hoping to imply that they have certain expertise or qualifications; such titles are generally marketing tools and are not granted by regulators.” Licenses and registrations are different in that they are granted by a regulatory authority of a state or the federal government. In addition to registrations and licenses, some designations granted by reputable organizations are indicators of qualifications. For example, “The mission of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. is to benefit the public by granting the CFP® certification and upholding it as the recognized standard of excellence for competent and ethical personal financial planning.”

Carlin suggested that we “Question everything… try to see the world for what it actually is, as opposed to what someone or some organization… is trying to represent it as…” That is not much different from the SEC’s advice to “…ask, question… if a financial professional tells you that he or she has a certain professional title…” Because, like tire tracks on your underwear, titles can be misleading euphemisms or accurate descriptions.

Article by Guerdon Ely

Guerdon T. Ely has over 25 years of experience as a financial planner and investment adviser. He is the author of Uncertainty is a Certainty: Fables for Fiduciaries, a book on prudent fiduciary investing. He is the creator and developer of two highly regarded retirement distribution software programs, MRD-Determinator and Pre-Determinator, which have been reviewed in MorningstarAdvisor.Com, Investment Advisor, Accounting Today, and WebCPA. Mr. Ely received a Master of Business Administration degree from California State University, Chico after graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a degree in Economics. He is a Certified Financial Planner™, an Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst™, and a Chartered Financial Consultant™.