Avoidance, Evasion, and Avoision

You may have heard of the Paradise Papers, which have revealed some of the figure financial dealings of the super-rich. Reading about them is interesting because of how careful the better journalists are with their use of language. Because, a single misused word can make a big difference.

Take the word evasion for example. I’m sure some of the people mentioned in the papers are guilty of evasion, but you won’t find many casual accusations of tax evasion, because tax evasion is specifically the term for a crime. It unsurprisingly refers to when an individual or corporation deliberately neglects to pay taxes that they’re required to pay.

But sadly, the incredibly wealthy can afford the most expensive lawyers who can find ways for them to pay very little tax while still remaining within the boundaries of the law. This is known as tax avoidance. It sounds much more respectable than tax evasion, doesn’t it? It’s like some tax was coming towards you down the street and you casually sidestepped it, rather than running screaming and waving your arms, as I imagine a tax evader might.

What these lawyers use to do this are loopholes: ambiguities or obscure aspects of laws which allow people to follow the letter of the law to their advantage, without following the spirit. The word loophole originates in medieval architecture. Loopholes, or arrowslits or embrasures, were narrow windows in a castle wall which would allow an archer to fire arrows while remaining protected. A legal loophole is a similar unnoticed gap which the people who take advantage of it can hide behind.

The name Paradise Papers, by the way, is a reference to the French term for tax haven, paradis fiscal. This could of course be literally translated as fiscal/tax paradise, though paradis can also be translated as heaven. Which of course sounds like the English word haven, so you might assume that haven and heaven are related. Their similarity in meaning and particularly in sound and spelling are merely coincidental though. Both come from Old English, but haven comes from hæfen, meaning port or harbour, whereas heaven comes from heofon, meaning God’s home.

I was going to finish with a joke, lamenting the fact that despite his confidence, Kent  Brockman’s word avoision is not real.


But of course I had to go and check it out, and the word is actually recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary, and has been around since the 1970s. It’s a portmanteau of avoidance and evasion, and means deliberately setting up your financial affairs so that it’s not clear if you’re committing tax evasion or tax avoidance.

I guess it’s a perfectly cromulent word after all!

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