By Suzi Steffen · September 22, 2011
Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms
by Ralph Keyes
“I prefer not to say we are killing other people,” an American artillery captain said during the Gulf War. ‘I prefer to say we are ‘servicing the target.’”
Ah yes, servicing the target. Once you’ve read Ralph Keyes’—at first kind of cutesy, then rapidly increasing in intensity—little book on euphemisms, you might think servicing the target could range in meaning from dropping some big dogs to playing hide the poker to something more blunt, say, taking revenge on a co-worker or terrible boss in some unmentionable way.
Speaking of unmentionables, that’s the whole point of his book Euphemania. What we can’t mention, like bodily functions, er, I mean urinating and defecating, or rather peeing and pooping, or certain other bodily functions like, say, sex—or politically problematic unmentionables, like killing, or maybe even murdering, hundreds of civilians in a bloody and unclear war—that’s what Keyes writes about in this piece that surveys the euphemistic ground and ends up with the theory that humans might desperately need euphemisms in order to converse.
After all, where’s the joy in marking insider/outsider status if, say, a sixth-grade girl can’t say to her female friends that “Cousin Freddie’s here for a visit again” without having the boys in her class suddenly squealing “Period panties!” and running away. (A boy in my seventh grade class who would humiliate the girls by coming up to us, sniffing hard and then declaring, “I can smell who’s on the rag!” May he rot in h-e-double-hockey-sticks.)
Keyes’ compilation sometimes feels just like that—a list of euphemisms. But he weaves a narrative through the book, which starts with what our ancestors considered unmentionable: The name(s) of God(s) or other powerful spirits (Yahweh, “the kindly ones,” “He Who Must Not Be Named”). He talks about food and drink (“Rocky Mountain oysters”); death (“a fatal event”); body parts (“the king’s highway”—which euphemism for vagina, I must say, gives me an entirely different view of the book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell); work and the economy (the best euphemism for being laid off is not in this book, but in Jonathan Ferris’ Then We Came to the End: “Tom was walked Spanish down the hall”); hunting (“population management”); and much more.
He speaks of class and its ramifications on euphemizing—there’s a particularly fun section on the lords of King Charles II’s court and their extremely raunchy poetry—and of the ways that euphemisms (say, about how well stocks might perform, or about the possibility that someone with no job or income should ever be given a mortgage) affect the way we all live.
In short, the book makes for pleasant reading. It’s not too deep; it’s often funny and sometimes infuriating (“To the Pentagon, soldiers who were KIA became combat ineffective”—it’s like reading The Forever War, except it’s real); and it’s always enjoyable if never too intellectually challenging. Is it a great “bathroom read”? I’d answer in the affirmative.
Ralph Keyes will be speaking at the Eugene Public Library for Banned Books Week, September 25, 2011, at 2:00 p.m.