***** 5 stars
While not providing the definitive list of euphemisms in the English language, Ralph Keyes’ “Euphemania” provides just enough word history and naughtiness to make it entertaining throughout. I had no idea, for instance, that “white meat”, “dark meat” and “drumstick” were food euphemisms to prevent our Victorian ancestors from saying the words breast or thigh. Just the very mention of these charged words was liable to get some overly sensitive soul thinking about other beings — perhaps at the same table! — with the same body parts. And we all know where that leads.
Keyes’s thesis about euphemisms – that they disguise words that a society finds distasteful – was no great surprise. Words about sex, death, excretion, and body parts have always been taboo – at least among polite people – or those wishing to be thought so. But I not considered how others words could also be euphemistic – words about money, for instance, and how much of it anyone makes. Words about ethnic groups; words about the handicapped (crippled? Differently-abled?)). Words about war are an interesting case: who wouldn’t feel good about a supporting a nuclear missile called the “Peace Keeper”? But I had not considered capitalism’s marketing apparatus as a haven for euphemizers. When the ugly and toothy Patagonian Toothfish failed to sell, it was re-christened Chilean Sea Bass, and flew out of the deli cases. In the same way, prunes became dried plums and Chinese gooseberry became kiwifruit. The ability for marketers to manipulate we customers was astounding.
If you are looking for all your favorite euphemisms, you’re likely to be disappointed. Yet, almost by definition, a complete list of euphemisms is an impossibility. Keyes shows plenty of examples of euphemisms that never make it into general circulation. These include those invent by families. Parents invent pet words to talk to their little ones about excretion and body parts. The list includes doody, poopoo, poopy, weenis, bumbum and winkle and on and on. The latest trend in euphemism – toward sterile constructions like “reduction in force” (for firing workers) and biosolids (for manure) – seems to show us moving toward place where dealing with actual living beings is becoming taboo and distasteful.
The gift of “Euphemania” is to show how wide and deep is the human tendency to soften “harsh” words. Euphemisms promise to be with as long there are people hoping for upward mobility, covering for their own embarrassments or wishing to sell you something unpleasant.
Jean E. Pouliot (Newburyport, MA)