Ever ponder how much we rely on euphemisms? I didn’t, until I dipped into “Euphemania” (Little, Brown; $24.99), a new book sure to delight language lovers.
The book, by Ralph Keyes, explores how we use euphemisms as stand-ins for words that evoke fear, unease or embarrassment. And, best of all, it offers hundreds of examples, from antiquity to the present.
Did you know, for instance, that “penis” was a euphemism in Cicero’s time? It’s Latin for tail. But “penis” is what Keyes calls a “fallen euphemism.” “They start out as euphemisms, they’re supposed to be respectable, and then they take on the taint of what they refer to.”
“Disease” is another fallen euphemism. Think “dis-ease” and you see that it was once a gentle term for illness. As you might guess, body parts and sex are the most popular subjects for euphemisms.
“Hiking the Appalachian Trail” is a new favorite in the latter category. Meaning “having an affair,” it was born in 2009, after one of outgoing S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford’s staffers offered it as an explanation for the missing governor’s whereabouts. Keyes likes it, too. “Thank God for Mark Sanford,” he says.
– Pam Kelley