In his new book Euphemania, a cultural history of euphemisms, Ralph Keyes takes a frank and often bawdy look at why we use euphemisms in social and political discourse, even when such evasions can degrade communication. “We all rely on euphemisms to tiptoe around what makes us uneasy, and have done so for most of recorded history,” writes Keyes, adding that “Euphemisms are a function of their times.” As such, Euphemania surveys different euphemisms throughout different cultures and times, from ancient Greece to the Roman republic, to Shakespeare’s England and the Victorian era (a treasure trove of euphemisms), to our modern age–which Keyes argues is not nearly as frank and open as we might like to think; indeed, one of his most intriguing arguments points out that modern discourse has simply opened up more topics to euphemism, including medicine, politics, and advertising.
Keyes doesn’t intend his book to be a straightforward history or dictionary of euphemisms; rather, he writes “it’s a consideration of the ways euphemisms enter our conversations and how they reflect their time and place. Euphemizing most often results from an excess of politeness and prudery, but it can also demonstrate creativity and high good humor.” Although Keyes always has a keen eye on the prudish mores of which ever age he’s discussing, he balances this analysis with plenty of humorous examples. His tone is fun and earthy, drawing examples from literature, film, TV, advertising, and political rhetoric. Between discussions of the Bowdlerization of Shakespeare, W.C. Fields’s difficulties with censors, or dialog from The Wire, Keyes also holds forth on the strange etymologies of our words. The root of the word bear (the mammal, not the verb) simply means “brown” or “the brown one” — the word bear is an unexpected euphemism, a refusal to name a lethal wild animal. Such examples can often magnify one’s awareness of how indebted our language is to euphemisms. Even when we reach for one of those Latinate technical words, we’ve really just picked up another culture’s euphemism. Our medical standby penis, for example, comes from the Latin word for “tail.” Vagina was a Roman synonym too–it means “sheath” or “scabbard.”
Euphemania is best when Keyes is riffing on naughty bits like these–or sex, or excretions, or violence, or all those things we’d like to otherwise gloss over. Most readers will likely gravitate to chapters like “Anatomy Class” or “Speaking of Sex.” Although Keyes is never dull (if anything, he’s at times too effervescent), his book is less convincing when discussing why we use euphemisms, simply because, at least to this reader, the answers are so obvious–euphemisms are part of the intrinsic codes of our culture. They make it easier to discuss unpleasant things; they build a sense of shared knowledge; they alleviate anxieties of race, place, and gender. At the same time, the cost of euphemisms–particularly in contemporary political discourse–can be astounding, leading to the evasion or outright denial of dramatic problems. Keyes doesn’t offer a pat solution to this problem, which is really better, if one thinks about it, because after all, wouldn’t an overly simplified, self-satisfied answer be just another dodge, another evasion, another euphemism? Good stuff.