In this engaging, thoughtful book, Ralph Keyes explores where euphemisms come from, why we use them, and what they tell us about who we are. Keyes suggests that a good way to determine what concerned human beings at any given moment is to examine their verbal evasions. Why did die become kick the bucket, underwear become unmentionables, and having an affair become hiking the Appalachian trail?
Euphemisms provide an accurate barometer of what’s on our minds. What makes us uncomfortable. What we consider taboo. Was that talk of God? Better we should say golly. Did discussing breasts make us queasy? Try bosoms. Lying sounds bad, but spinning not so much. Those who once were broke now show negative cash flow. Yesterday’s disabled today have special needs. Erectile dysfunction is better to have than impotence, certainly, and ED better yet.
Any word or phrase that gives us pause is a candidate for euphemizing. What gives us pause varies from place to place, however, and epoch to epoch. Euphemania shows how euphemisms went from a tool of the church to a form of gentility to today’s instrument of commercial, political and politically correct doublespeak. Categorizing high-risk loans as subprime made it easier to extend them. Controversial tax cuts are more palatable when called tax relief. Calling hungry families food insecure households makes them easier to ignore.
An overlooked source of euphemisms is current events that become part of the vernacular. One reason this happens is the entertainment they provide. Wardrobe malfunction is no more descriptive than “flashing” or simply “exposing body parts,” but is a lot more fun to say. And who wouldn’t rather say “I inhaled” than “I smoked marijuana”?
That is why, as Keyes’s subtitle suggests, we have a love affair with euphemisms.