Sunday, February 20, 2011
I was reading a book about euphemisms just as federal spending was being relabeled “investments” and new dietary guidelines turned hamburgers into “solid fats and added sugar.”
The government can’t talk without euphemisms, but, then again, neither can the rest of us.
Ralph Keyes, a Yellow Springs author of many books, explains why in Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms (Little, Brown; 279 pages; $24.99).
“Any word or phrase that gives us pause is a candidate for euphemizing,” Keyes writes. “What gives us pause varies from place to place, however, and from era to era.”
Surely, few eras were as wacky as the 18th and 19th centuries, when the growing middle class in England became particularly prudish about language.
Keyes notes that every body part needed a euphemism, so legs became limbs and breasts became bosoms. Even poultry parts were considered unmentionable.
Eventually, Americans followed suit, leading to a delightful Winston Churchill story. At a dinner party in Virginia, he was reprimanded by a woman who said his request for a chicken breast should have been phrased more delicately as “white meat.”
Keyes writes: “The next day, Churchill sent the woman a corsage with the message ‘Pin this on your white meat.'”
Euphemisms cover all phases of life, but government is almost unthinkable without them.
As wars became increasingly bloody in the 20th century, governments – including ours – worked all the harder to sanitize the language around them, Keyes says.
Invasions became incursions, doomsday missiles were dubbed Peacekeepers, and dead soldiers became the fallen.
In the 21st century, torture was redefined as enhanced interrogation and escalation as a surge (“making the massive influx of fresh American troops into Iraq sound like a soft drink,” Keyes writes).
Less deadly matters also inspire euphemisms. Last week, President Barack Obama was selling the investments in his budgets. Another term for them is spending.
Meanwhile, a federal agency announced that it could find no evidence that Toyotas accelerate on their own. That leaves only one other possibility: bad driving. The government chose a softer term: pedal misapplication.
Americans are also trying to digest the new federal dietary guidelines. As nutrition expert Marion Nestle notes, politicians dare not annoy the beef and pork industries by urging people to eat less meat.
They instead advise eating fewer solid fats and added sugars, or “SoFAS” for short. (Perhaps couch potatoes will be more likely to listen.)
Predictably, a good deal of the book is devoted to euphemisms for sex or the body parts involved in it. Many of the euphemisms are more descriptive than the terms they’re trying to hide.
But I won’t go into that, because, this being a family newspaper, I’d have to invent euphemisms for the euphemisms.
Joe Blundo is a Dispatch columnist.