Author Q & A: Ralph Keyes
In his time prolific American writer Ralph Keyes has tackled a whole range of non-fiction topics, from the lingering effects of life at high school to the importance of one’s height (or lack thereof). Keyes has a particular fascination with the vagaries of language, and his latest book dissects our everyday use of euphemisms. It’s a subject chockfull of comic potential, but [his book] manages to balance the humour with a keen analytical approach as to how and why we feel the need to express ourselves so obliquely so often.
Did you always feel confident that there was a full book to be written on this subject?
The more I delved into this the more I wondered whether I could limit myself to a single book on the subject! It’s such a rich topic, not just as it relates to language but to class, gender, sex, even food. Research has found that we’re more likely to eat offal, say, which sounds awfully close to “awful,” if it’s called variety meats. On the American frontier fried calves’ testicles were called Rocky Mountain Oysters, dried beans Alaska strawberries. In just one recent episode of Mad Men, “lubricate,” “fortify” and “unwind” were used euphemistically for “consume copious amounts of alcohol.”
Are euphemisms a failing of our use of language, or a celebration of it?
Yes, and yes. Euphemisms too often are a way to avoid facing a subject squarely, or even honestly. At the same time euphemisms can be wonderfully creative. Friendship with benefits, for example, or the thousands of euphemisms we’ve conjured for menstruation such as Aunt Flo’s come or rebooting the ovarian operating system. Some of the best euphemisms grow spontaneously out of current events: “Wardrobe malfunction,” “close your eyes and think of England.”
You identify the different motives behind our use of euphemisms – privacy, creativity, code and so forth. Do you think the balance between these motives is shifting at present?
Ever since euphemisms became part of our conversation many centuries ago, we’ve relied on them as a tool of discretion, coded talk and fanciful word play – as Shakespeare realized better than anyone. Some motivations for using euphemisms have clearly declined. Calling bears honey eaters or the brown ones for fear of summoning them by using their real name, for example, no longer feels necessary. At the same time, we’re more likely than our ancestors were to euphemize death (pushing up daisies, taking a dirt nap) and to give euphemistic names to money matters (subprime loans, illiquid assets, etc.).
Has writing this book made you more self-conscious about your own use of euphemisms?
Well, that is a cheeky question! The answer is: yes. I have definitely become more conscious of my own use of euphemisms. I’m no less inclined than most people to use the usual euphemisms for sex, sex organs and body functions. Who would have me to dinner if I didn’t? Certainly my wife and I have more fun than before playing around with euphemisms in conversation.
So you have your own private euphemisms?
Oh yes. For example, because a previous book of mine on the topic of dishonesty was called The Post-Truth Era, we now call the slightest deviation from absolute honesty “being post-truthful.” Because our teenage son once concluded that during road trips we called stretches of incredibly boring landscapes “scenic,” we now use scenic as our secret euphemism for “boring.” Most couples and families develop their own in-house euphemisms. So do co-workers. Mastery of office euphemisms is an essential vocational skill these days.
– Andy Murray