Sunday Guardian snippets: on euphemisms . . .
Ralph Keyes’ book Unmentionables (originally published as Euphemania and now subtitled “From Family Jewels to Friendly Fire – What We Say Instead of What We Mean”) is an entertaining look at the history of euphemistic language, ranging from ribald Shakespearean lines (Iago to Desdemona’s distraught father: “Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”) to Winston Churchill being told by an American lady at a dinner party to say “white meat” instead of “breast of chicken” (a probably apocryphal story goes that he sent her a corsage with the message “Pin this on your white meat”). Along the way, Keyes reminds us of the often-surreal consequences of indiscriminate bowdlerising, such as the Associated Press article that changed the name of the athlete Tyson Gay to Tyson Homosexual, or the email filter in the Internet’s early days that prevented residents of Scunthorpe from registering themselves online. (Why, you ask? Check the second to fifth letters of the town’s name.)
Unmentionables starts to wear a little thin after the first few chapters (the book is primarily a trivia-trove), but I liked its recurring motif that certain words come to be perceived as “good” or “bad” as their associations change over time. Steven Pinker and other experts on language have written about how (for instance) the word “nigger” was once used benevolently – including by progressive-minded people who campaigned for equal rights – but eventually became taboo because of its widespread pejorative use by bigots. Many of its “politically correct” replacements have become similarly corrupted through association with prejudiced attitudes. In a world entirely free of discrimination, censorship of this sort would be unnecessary – but then, reading and writing would be drabber processes too. As it is, it’s fun to speculate that many of the words we today regard as being innocuous will have sinister connotations in a few decades.
— Jabberwock, February 25, 2011