The softest slurs: Humans have always needed to avoid saying what they’re saying
As long as we have had language we have had the need not to say what we have to say. No culture and no period in history have been exempt from euphemisms, least of all our own. Don’t even try to avoid them. You can’t. Every important aspect of life — sex, food, bodily functions, war and death — has developed its own subset of empty phrases that have become common parlance. The power of popular linguistic historian Ralph Keyes’s new book Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms is that, while tracing the amusing histories of our softest expressions, he also shows the invidious, stultifying power of the doublespeak we impose on ourselves out of a misguided, phony niceness.
“Hiking the Appalachian Trail” is perhaps the latest widely accepted euphemism, a phrase that derives from Congressman Mark Sanford’s claim that he was on a West Virginian nature trip with his sons when he was actually in Argentina with his mistress. Euphemisms often emerge from such amusing, vivid anecdotes. In the London of the 1970s, “discussing Uganda” became an acceptable term for intercourse after one (mercifully unnamed) couple, who had obviously been having sex at a party, claimed they had been discussing African politics instead. Sex once provided the most fertile ground for the development of euphemisms. For the act of masturbation alone, we have “self-abuse” or “the solitary vice” or “pocket pool” or, for those in the military, “blanket drill.” As the sexual revolution changed our morality, it changed our need for such elusive terms. The word “bastard,” which once had to become “illegitimate child” or “love child” in polite society, doesn’t need a euphemism anymore.
In place of sexual euphemisms, we are developing an elaborate system of political euphemism that threatens to sweep public discourse into a contentless spew of inoffensive nonsense. Once, the politically motivated abuse of language was strictly the preserve of the left wing. Political correctness demanded that “problems” become “issues,” that failure become “deferred success.” But during the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency, he led a grand right-wing game of catch-up with the left, stripping language of its danger and force and connection to truth more than political correctness ever could. War became “regime change.” Catastrophic market losses became “increased volatility.” Torture became “the application of pressure.”
The great mercy of this sordid linguistic history is that no euphemism works for very long. Keyes calls the process by which euphemisms lose their capacity to evade meaning, “the euphemism carousel,” itself a pretty term for the nasty phenomenon by which the softness of an expression disappears with each usage. The word “penis” is itself a euphemism from Latin; it originally meant “small tail.” In our own time, the euphemism carousel revolves at an increasingly rapid rate. The word “retarded” began as a euphemism. In my lifetime, it has been overturned for “developmentally delayed,” which means exactly the same thing, then “learning disabled,” then “differently abled.” In a sense “differently abled” is the ultimate euphemism because it describes every single member of the human race, lacking any capacity for distinction. None of this “verbal kabuki,” as Keyes describes it, matters anyway, because kids in the playground just start shouting “differently abled” instead of “retarded” when the official language changes. “Euphemizing represents a forlorn hope that renaming something might change its essence,” Keyes writes. Change words as often as you like, kids are still going to find a way to be nasty.
Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, explained our tendency to euphemism as an expression of human selfishness: It gives us “the profit of saying and the profit of denying what is said.” The slipperiness of euphemisms explains their attraction to politicians, who hate making enemies among potential voters. The tendency to be inoffensive in language can have unfortunate consequences, however, both personally and politically. A recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Who you calling obese, Doc?” debated the merits of adding “medically” in front of “obese” in an attempt to soften the stigma of the word: “Though lapsing into euphemism can soften a bleak diagnosis, it can also lead to confusion. Euphemism is no friend of precision. Thus doctors are sometimes faced with a dilemma: Should I be sensitive or accurate?” Even in the most crucial decisions of our life, we avoid direct language.
“Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” T.S. Eliot wrote. Euphemania, while proving Eliot’s statement, also offers an appealing countertruth. The cowardice of euphemism is always defeated in the end. Everyone with a brain eventually works out what is being said. And then the codes become more amusing than confounding. An obituary of an English aristocrat once noted that the deceased lord was “an uncompromisingly direct ladies’ man.” Everybody knew that meant he was a public flasher. You just needed to know the code.
– Stephen Marche