**** 4 stars
Ralph Keyes is well known in the US for producing books featuring both analyses of social trends, and a knack for writing well and entertainingly about them. This book focuses on euphemisms and how they are used, tracing their development in Europe and North America as a response to changing social pressures resulting from religion (17th and 18th centuries), prudery (19th), and anxieties about death, disability and discrimination in our own times.
Keyes explores the extent and content of euphemism in areas of social activity ranging sex, the body, illness, money, food, and war and its consequences. Most contemporary readers will not need to be reminded of the irony of the euphemistically-named “sub-prime loans”, or, “economic downturns” – but they may think in new ways about “private equity firms” and “reverse engineering” after reading this book.
Some of Keyes’s statements about euphemisms made me think about language more generally. For example, euphemisms “don’t just communicate; they take stands”. And he encourages us to think about their effects on the clarity and the “grown-up” character of our thinking.
In the final chapter, Keyes explores the reasons why we use euphemisms. Among other things, he considers how they lessen our sensitivities and embarrassments around social difference – thus taking us, appropriately, into discussions of “political correctness”.
Some readers may want to approach this book by tracing Keyes’s ideas about the development and importance of euphemism, others will want to dip into it for amusement and ideas over a series of evenings. I found it a very satisfying read in both senses.
Dr. Jeff Evans