Author’s ‘Love Affair With Euphemisms’ is a classic
My dictionary defines “euphemism” as: “the substitution of a mild or indirect expression for one thought to be offensive or blunt.” We all employ euphemisms, some of us more than others. They can soften verbal blows. They can help us to circle around unpleasant topics.
Ralph Keyes has taken our enduring cultural affection for employing euphemistic expressions and made it into a book that is by turns, amusing, informative and even slightly vulgar. “Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms” is a veritable smorgasbord of words that we might summon if our intent is to try to be inoffensive.
Keyes zeroes in on some conversational subjects that can make us uncomfortable: sex, our bodies, our bodily functions, medical conditions, death, food, money and war. As Keyes takes us through these somewhat touchy subjects we realize why they can inspire euphemisms and why a number of them are rarely included in family newspapers.
Fortunately, there are quite a few I can mention in this review. Keyes observes that talking about money can make some people feel a bit nervous. That’s because some of us don’t have quite as much of it as we might wish to have. Keyes notices that some individuals will euphemistically describe their condition as “financially insecure” or “a little short.”
His section on euphemisms for food is rather illuminating. Nobody wanted to eat Patagonian toothfish until they renamed it “Chilean sea bass.” A fish called “slime head” was another slow mover until they started calling it “orange roughy.” Have you ever eaten “dolphin fish?” Perhaps you did after they began calling it “mahi mahi.”
Death is another topic that we often choose to circumnavigate. Keyes states that “when it comes to death, the euphemistic fog becomes nearly impenetrable. The dead are ‘no longer with us.’ They ‘left the building.’ ‘Kicked the bucket.’ ‘Bought the farm.’ They’ve ‘gone home,’ or ‘south,’ or ‘west,’ or to ‘the last roundup.’ They’ve ‘laid down their burden.’ They’re ‘pushing up daisies.’ ”
Then there’s war, a subject so unpleasant that we might actually consider not having any more if we were forced to discuss them without resorting to euphemistic language. Keyes recounts how “civilians killed by mistake in Vietnam were sometimes referred to as ‘regrettable by-products.’ ”
Every day we coin euphemisms. Keyes sees positives and negatives in that. He reasons: “On the one hand, they can be a source of evasion. A way to avoid topics that should be confronted, of choosing not to face unpleasant truths. At worst, euphemisms are employed by politicians, bureaucrats, merchants and others, as tools of manipulation. On the other hand, when used judiciously, euphemisms can civilize discourse and be a welcome form of courtesy in rude times.”
“Euphemania” careens through hundreds of euphemisms with rambunctious zeal. Keyes lives in Yellow Springs. He has been honing his writing craft for decades. This book, his sixteenth, could become a classic.
– Vick Mickunas