Book Review: Euphemania by Ralph Keyes
It took me longer to finish this book than the others. Probably because it’s a nonfiction book that talks about euphemisms. Since it wasn’t a story with a plot, I didn’t read it as consistently.
So, here is my first nonfiction read of the year…Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms by Ralph Keyes.
From the book flap:
Have you ever wondered why we use so many euphemisms? In an age when liars misspeak, couples engage in coital activity, and doctors say painful procedures “might pinch a little,” euphemistic talk abounds. Did you ever inhale? Enjoy a wee drop? Hike the Appalachian Trail?
These are just some of the euphemisms Ralph Keyes writes about in Euphemania. He shows in fascinating detail how our passion for tidying up language has evolved over time. How yesterday’s “cow patty” became today’s biosolid, and our ancestors’ “smallest room” was replaced by today’s powder room. With intriguing stories Keyes reveals why Louisa May Alcott’s family felt compelled to change their name from “Alcocke,” and how “Patagonian toothfish” became Chilean sea bass.
According to Keyes, euphemisms provide an accurate barometer of what makes us uneasy. Was that talk of God? Better we should say gad. Did discussing breasts make us queasy? Try bosoms. Our prudish Victorian forebears called trousers inexpressibles and toilet paprt curl paper. To them a vulgar sneeze was a chaste nose spasm, and pregnancy an interesting condition. We have other concerns. Bad loans, for example, sound dire; nonperforming assets, not so much. And why fire an employee who can just as easily be dehired.
Engaging, thoughtful, and brilliantly funny, Euphemania in a rollicking exploration of the surprising and inventive ways euphemisms are created and enter our language.
So, you may be asking, what is a euphemism? Here is the author’s definition:
…words or phrases substituted for ones that make us uneasy.
I also found the following definition at Dictionary.com:
An inoffensive word or phrase substituted for one considered offensive or hurtful, especially one concerned with religion, sex, death, or excreta.
When I originally started reading this book, I thought it was going to be more like a dictionary of euphemisms. It does explain what a lot of euphemisms mean, but this book also explains how many of the things we say, and how we say them, came to be. It also looks into some of the reasons we euphemize.
I didn’t realize how often we use euphemisms. Since I started reading this book, I have been noticing them in my conversations with others, in advertising, on TV…all over.
We mostly euphemise to help everyone feel comfortable with the language we are using.
For example, would you rather I said “He farted as soon as he sat on his butt” or would “He floofered as soon as he sat on his bottom” be better? Ok, not a great example, but you get the idea. The second one sounds less offensive to me than the first one does because I replaced the offensive words with less offensive words.
It was interesting to learn what kinds of euphemisms were used a long time ago and how those have transformed into how we speak today.
The author mentioned how the use of euphemisms can make communication a lot harder, since we aren’t actually saying what we mean. We kind of dance around our meaning and hope that the other person undertsands what we are saying.
I enjoyed this book and felt like I learned some new ideas. If you are interested in euphemisms and their origins, I would recommend this book to you.
A word of warning…this book does contain swear words and sexual words in order to show how we euphemise them. So, if this would bother you, then this isn’t the book for you. I’m usually annoyed and bothered when there is bad language in a book that I’m reading, but since this book was about how we make offensive words less offensive, it didn’t bother me as much because I understood why they were included in the book.
People can get really creative when it comes to euphemizing. Does your family use any unique euphemisms?