Euphemisms: Only your cognoscenti know what you mean
BY ROGER K. MILLER
Published: February 27, 2011
“Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms” by Ralph Keyes (Little, Brown, $24.99)
Was Shakespeare right? Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Surely, being Shakespeare, he was right, his point being that what matters is what something is, not what it is called.
The rest of us, however, not being Shakespeare, beg to differ. Many times the important thing is what something is called. And, as Ralph Keyes demonstrates in his delightful “Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms,” frequently that is not sweet at all.
“Euphemania” is not a compilation of euphemisms (though it contains plenty), “but a consideration of the ways euphemisms enter our conversations and how they reflect their time and place.” Keyes, a journalist and author of several other books, says his theme is that euphemisms are a barometer of changing attitudes, placing a spotlight on what most concerns humans at any given time.
“Euphemism” derives from Eupheme, the nurse to the Muses of ancient Greece. The name literally means “good speaking.” The author’s definition of euphemism is broad, taking in slang, jargon, and double entendres: “words or phrases substituted for ones that make us uneasy.”
That which makes us uneasy has changed dramatically over time. Once meant to avoid blasphemy and impoliteness, euphemisms today are regularly used to obfuscate and to cover up embarrassing situations. Negatives are changed into positives—”life insurance” is really “death insurance” — or the vivid (“dumps”) is replaced by the innocuous (“landfills”).
In general, euphemisms for sexual activity have lost much of their judgmental flavor. We have gone from “living in sin” to “without benefit of clergy” to “shacking up” to “living together,” the last being hardly a euphemism at all.
What inspires the most secretiveness and taboos — more than sex, body parts, disease and death — is money. We tiptoe around finances for many reasons, including gentility and self-preservation, but also, especially in today’s world of high finance, to create a verbal fog, to camouflage and obfuscate or to make something sound the very opposite of what it is.
All of this brings to mind George Orwell’s comment, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Politics, war and international affairs are just as rich in this sort of doublespeak. The Bush administration enshrined its easing of environmental regulations as the Clean Air Act. Outright defeat becomes “defensive victory” and a missile that can kill tens of millions is called the Peacekeeper.
Keyes gives several reasons we euphemize: among others, to comfort ourselves, to preserve privacy, to demarcate class, and as “code” within groups (“dog whistle discourse” that only the cognoscenti — such as families with pet private euphemisms — can understand). Humans have invented an infinite number of ways to say not quite what they mean.
Roger K. Miller’s latest novel is “Dragon in Amber”