Ohio author Ralph Keyes’ ‘Euphemania’ is a fun history of how and why we mince our words
So why in the world would wildlife officials actually kill any of the detestable, projectile-vomiting, double-crested cormorants violating the Lake Erie islands when they could “effectively manage the flock” to get the same result?
And who among us wouldn’t rather slurp down a few Rocky Mountain “oysters” than knowingly consume even one deep-fried lamb testicle?
And wouldn’t most of us happily admit to getting a little snookered, a bit tipsy or even three sheets to the wind — while it’s always the other people who just get flat-out drunk?
Such is the utility and comfort of the euphemism, explains Yellow Springs, Ohio, author Ralph Keyes, a logophile fit for the task of explaining “Euphemania — Our Love Affair With Euphemisms.”
They are, he argues, a barometer of what makes us uneasy. So starving Europeans who ate cats during World War II referred to them as country rabbits.
This small book is fun, and illuminating. It uncovers the why behind our linguistic disguises — the explanation for Churchill’s referring to lies as “terminological inexactitudes” and squid becoming “calamari.”
Keyes starts playfully: His ancestor, one Robert Keyes, “had to spend an hour in the Cambridge, Massachusetts stocks because he had engaged in unseemly behavior with Goody Newell of Lynn.”
That euphemistic accusation, mild to modern ears, leads us to other delicate — and deliciously descriptive — words for acts of even greater unseemliness. Keyes includes an excerpt from the chapter “Speaking About Sex” on his website.
Sex has long been a fertile arena for the safer, or sometimes just plain sexier, synonym. Grandma and Grandpa’s “hoochie coochie” or “roll in the hay” isn’t all that different from today’s “donating DNA” or “horizontal aerobics.”
Even further back, we find “shag,” a word beloved by Mike Myers, first appeared in 1785 in a volume called “Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.”
Keyes, best known for writing “Is There Life After High School?,” makes no attempt to codify. Others have tried: Pauline Kiernan’s 2007 “Filthy Shakespeare” tracked the Bard’s multiple references to sex, and the hilarious online drunktionary.com scours up more than 5,000 words used to describe inebriation.
Keyes prefers to edify: “Since language is in constant flux, as are social values, euphemisms can quickly lose their utility. Good words become bad words become good words again, in endless succession.”
Some do have staying power. “Sleep with” and “pass away” have been constants for centuries.
But why is this? Why can’t we just say the word? Keyes points out that “no one who hits his thumb with a hammer exclaims ‘Intercourse!’ or ‘Excrement!’ ”
Quentin Crisp once called euphemisms “unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne,” but Keyes emphasizes they can also be fun. So, too, is his book.
– Michael Scott