Spend a weekend reading Ralph Keyes’s fascinating new book, “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms,” and you’ll become convinced that language is a complicated network of discreet evasions that stretches back to the beginning of civilization.
Some euphemisms are so old we don’t even recognize them as another era’s attempt to avoid dangerous words. One example: “Body wax,” Keyes notes, was once a euphemism for what waste managers today euphemistically call “biosolids.” (Time travelers planning a makeover in the past, beware.)
Other bygone euphemisms have undergone another sort of evolution: They have themselves become naughty enough to preclude their appearing in a newspaper.
What’s a well-meaning interlocutor to do? As Keyes points out, leaning on other languages helps.
“Modern sex educators use as many Latin terms as possible to avoid embarrassment when discussing body parts,” he writes. “In an account popular in England some decades ago, a British soldier who had been shot in the buttocks during World War I was asked by a woman visiting his hospital ward where he was wounded. The soldier responded, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am. I can’t say. I never studied Latin.”
The shelf life for euphemisms is sometimes brief. For a period in the 19th century, Keyes writes, Britons referred to bedbugs as Norfolk-Howards. (New York hotels have undoubtedly produced their own bedbug euphemisms by now.)
And five years from now, “hiking the Appalachian Trail” — a phrase used by South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford to conceal an adulterous affair — is unlikely to provoke many snickers, much less guffaws.
Other euphemisms — darn, heck, gee, gosh — prove more enduring.
As Keyes points out, while euphemisms may be our constant companion, the subjects we use them to skirt around change over time. From a preoccupation with piety (our ancestors didn’t want to anger the gods with the wrong words), the West shifted in the 18th century to an obsession with social propriety.
This obsession peaked in the Victorian era, and we’re still feeling its effects, as Keyes demonstrates in chapters entitled “Speaking of Sex,” “Anatomy Class” and “Secretions and Excretions.” (Did I mention how few examples can appear in a newspaper?)
Today, we’re adding our own brand of euphemisms to the list, Keyes writes. Think “economic downturn” for the Great Recession and “collateral damage” for civilians killed inadvertently in war.
“Euphemania” is a great book for people who love linguistic and historical trivia. (For them, it’s probably better than spending an afternoon in bed with bonbons, and I’m not speaking metaphorically. At least, I think I’m not.) But it’s also an insightful look at how societies use language to elude taboo subjects.
The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that we must pass over in silence the things we cannot speak about. Maybe a euphemistic bon mot would do in a pinch, though.
– Doug Childers