Back in January, I saw Ralph Keyes’s Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms come through on the Washington County Libraries New Materials RSS feed, and I just knew i had to read it. It met my very tough and extremely arbitrary criteria of “having to do with science, math, history, or language or practically anything else” and “not much more than 200 pages long.” And the title was awesome. So I placed a hold request on it, set it to activate on April 1, and never thought about it again. Until it came through.
Anybody remember Jim Carrey’s movie Liar, Liar? Remember when he told his son that sometimes grown-ups have to lie? Well, this book is sort of an explanation for that statement. It’s not so much that we have to tell untruths, but verbal and written communication can just be difficult without some way of softening things or coming at them obliquely.
This isn’t to say that all recourse to euphemism equals deception, of course. Sometimes it’s done in an honest attempt to talk around a topic without saying anything offensive or to avoid being explicit (particularly when explaining morbid or embarrassing things to children).
Keyes takes in the history of this tendency to euphemize, starting from ancient times, through the extremely productive (euphemistically speaking, of course) Victorian era, and down to our current society that seems completely obsessed with euphemisms.
Right up front here, I have to point out that in discussing topics rife with euphemisms, the book of course discusses a bawdy issue or two and ventures into scatology not a few times. But if you’re not squeamish or easily offended, I think you’ll find it as fascinating and hilarious as I did.
Mr. Keyes points out that we tend to go to a euphemism for whatever makes us nervous, afraid, or uncomfortable. For early societies, this meant not referring to dangerous predators by name, or not naming the deities they feared. For Victorians, this meant that someone wishing to order a breast, thigh, and leg of chicken needed to ask for “white meat, dark meat, and a drumstick.” I find it hard to believe “leg” was ever considered offensive, but then again, I grew up in a house where saying “butt” or “fart” was forbidden. (Either offense earned you a trip to the bathroom, which room is also euphemistically named, since while it’s true that bathing can be done there, you don’t “go to the bathroom” in the tub. Unless you’re sleepwalking. Trust me, I know.)
One of the interesting and tricky things about euphemisms is that you can never predict where they’ll come up.
Much as we might like to think that our modes of expression involve a straight trajectory of opening up, shedding inhibitions, and becoming more candid, that’s just not the case. The terms and targets of our euphemizing have simply shifted. An explosion of topics have become eligible for euphemistic discourse: not only the usual suspects of sex, body parts, and bodily secretions, but also money, diseases, and certain foods, to name just a few of the many subjects we euphemize today.
The chapters on sexuality and anatomy were quite amusing, the one covering excretions absolutely hysterical, but I really found the chapters on finance and politics quite intriguing. It’s not market crash, it’s a “correction.” It’s not an attack ad (that’s what the other side does), it’s a “contrast ad.” Actually, it’s all mud-slinging.
The range of some of the euphemisms for certain categories is truly mind-boggling. Mental Floss had an article not long ago about Ben Franklin’s 200+ euphemisms for “drunk.” Think he might’ve tossed back a few in his time? (The flossers also have a quiz titled “Monty Python Phrase or Ben Franklin Synonym for Drunk?” And no, you can’t resist it. Search your feelings; you know it to be true.)
If you aren’t noticing, I’m giving a thumbs-up to this book. If you’re into language at all, you’ll love it. It also looks like Keyes has a number of other extremely likely candidates for my To Be Read list. But for now I shall resist. I really must someday read one of the books I’ve actually purchased to read.
And now I have a couple of personal examples and then some philosophizing on the cycle of euphemisms.
When I was a kid, we had a family joke about sterilization procedures, whether performed on animals or humans. It was all “back surgery” due to a surreptitious prayer request for a member (why did I use that word?) of our congregation.
Another example involved a former college roommate of The Fair Elaine, who got quite a kick out of a chemistry professor’s repeated use of the word “spigot” in a laboratory lecture. Because in her family, the spigot was the distinctive anatomical feature of the human male.
This whole thing reminds me of one of those “real things said in court” emails:
Q: You were shot in the fracas?
A: No, I was shot midway between the fracas and the navel.
When I was a kid, you had to be very careful in my circle of friends to call your two-wheeled conveyance a “bicycle,” because “bike” had turned into our euphemism for the region of a boy’s anatomy typically covered by a protective device from Bike Sports Equipment. Choruses of dumb laughter would erupt whenever any hapless outliers used the shortened word. They just weren’t in the “in” crowd.
And here’s where the philosophizing comes in. Think about the words “vulgar” and “profane.” Look them up. I’ll wait. Okay, either you looked or you didn’t. They both mean “common” (though profane is closer to unholy, but then holy means “set apart,” and “not set apart” could mean “common.”) But the connotation of both of them is “something I’m too good for.”
So a word crops up and becomes the term “everyone” uses, making it vulgar. The uppity folks among us then eschew its use in favor of some euphemism. Eventually it, too, becomes part of the culture, and “everyone” is using it. At which point the new word is vulgar. And so we introduce a new new word and think it’s somehow better than the old one. We also think that the old one is objectively objectionable. And it isn’t.
(This is one reason I’m not really that offended by swearing, at least in certain contexts. I don’t really mind if someone refers to manure in a different way than I do, and I’m not really concerned if someone says “damn” instead of “darn,” because they both express the same sentiment. If they’re adding extra f-words to all their dialogue, however, I’m not a fan. And I must say, I’m not at all a fan of OMG or its derivatives. Though I’m willing to let “Oh my dawth” go for personal reasons.)
It’s also unfortunate that this euphemistic cycle deprives us of perfectly good words. There are some people who really fit the description that C.S. Lewis would have labeled “an ass.” But you might get a nasty look should you characterize them in this way during intercourse with your friends. (Did that word shock you there? Look it up. It doesn’t have to refer to married-people-things.)
I’m getting to the bottom of my library pile, and I’m seriously toying with just returning one of the books I’ve started. If all goes well, I should finish Bloody Crimes soon. And then I’ll start on my purchased book backlog.
Oh, and check back for a Foney Friday post this week. It’s gold, Jerry! Gold!