Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a…what?
by Mark H. Teeter at 17/10/2011
At the end of the movie Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler leaves his mercurial wife Scarlett with perhaps the most memorable line in the history of cinema. To the entreaties “Where shall I go? What shall I do?”, the dashing Captain Butler simply replies, “Frankly, my dear, my indifference is boundless.”
What, that’s not the way you remember it? How about “Frankly, my dear, it is of no consequence”? Or “It’s all the same to me”? Or “I don’t give a hoot”? All of these euphemisms were suggested by the MGM studio to get around the proscribed word “damn,” whose use had disturbed the Hollywood censors of 1939 to the point of threatening the film’s release.
Happily, the Production Code monitors eventually relented and Butler’s “damn” entered movie history – and rightly so, as the word bears just the level of severity and finality needed to make the line work. “Boundless indifference”? – are you kidding?
This hoot of a story is one of hundreds offered up by Ralph Keyes in “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms” (New York: Little Brown, 2010). Russians learning English would do well to spend some time with this volume, as euphemisms are an important part of the language – and one of the most difficult to keep track of, damn it.
Everybody does it
Deriving from the ancient Greek for “good speaking,” euphemism today represents the substitution of a “mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt” – or simply “makes us uneasy,” as Keyes sums it up. The oldest recorded euphemism reflects this unease: the word “bear” appeared so that medieval Europeans could talk about the creature without naming it – which might summon the “bear” itself!
Every modern language keeps a stable of euphemisms. Russians are no slouches, ranging from the simple pancake блин (blin) – used to replace obscenities beginning with the same initial letters, just as Anglophones use “fudge” and “shucks” – and extending to the more chilling practice of re-labeling mass imprisonment and murder as “repressions” and “purges.” English gave the world “concentration camp,” of course, and may have become the global euphemizing leader over recent decades as it has split into more than a dozen nationand culture-specific Englishes that create euphemisms all their own.
In other words
“Euphemania” cites a large number of the euphemisms in broad use today in the United States, where an obsession with euphemizing has long been noted by visitors. The tendency derives, goes one theory, from the novelty of American democracy itself.
Whatever the reason, this tendency toward “more polite” or “politically correct” substitution has long posed problems for acquirers of US English, as “which words needed to be avoided and which ones were appropriate wasn’t always clear” – and isn’t now. Just as a 19th century English aristocrat could be chastised, to his astonishment, for saying “leg” instead of “limb” in the presence of American women, so a visitor today may be bewildered to find that non-white Americans should emphatically not be referred to as “colored people” – yet “people of color” works just fine, thanks.
The rapidity with which euphemisms change in the US lexicon suggests a “carousel whirl in which words are both soiled and cleansed”: some go mainstream – as Butler’s “damn” has – while others, termed “fallen euphemisms,” become as scandalous as the words they replace. Of the latter, a surprising example (to Prof. Extreme anyway) was “fart,” formerly a medical euphemism which “over time took on the odor of the act it referred to and itself became offensive.” One acceptable alternative – “to break wind” – should not be confused with the light outdoor jacket commonly called a “windbreaker.”
The sheer volume and maze-like evolution of English euphemisms may seem daunting – and for good reason – but recall two things: first, Anglophones are aware of their euph-obsession and will normally make allowances for the non-native speaker who inadvertently lets out a “fart” in the wrong linguistic company.
And secondly, native speakers themselves are caught often enough using the wrong euphemism – or, even worse, creating a new one. When North Carolina governor Mark Sanford initially tried to disguise a prolonged absence spent visiting his mistress in Argentina as “hiking the Appalachian Trail,” his political career was over. And the country suddenly had a new generation of “hikers”!
A century ago, composer Max Reger wrote a critic after a very negative review, “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.” There is room, in other words, for considerable wit in this substitution game – and surely that’s reason enough for native speakers and English learners alike, when contemplating their choice of euphemisms, to give a damn.
Extreme Extra Credit: Last time: The advice that “short words are the best, and the old words best of all” was offered by Nobel literature laureate Winston Churchill – congrats to Dasha Loseva of Moscow for the first correct ID. Today: When an American party guest asks a host, “Where is your euphemism?” – what is the real question?
Mark H. Teeter is an American English teacher and translator