Reviewed by: FC Etier
Published: February 27, 2011 at 11:43 am
“You son-of-a-bitch!” like many exclamations takes on a different meaning with different voice inflections and in different contexts. Remember the old story of the preacher who was mad but wouldn’t curse, so he told his adversary, “When you get home, I hope your mother runs out from under the porch and bites you on the leg!” According to Ralph Keyes, author of Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, language is in constant flux just as our social values. He says, “Good words become bad words become good words again, in endless succession,” – a virtual “euphemism carousel.”
Euphemisms are actually just synonyms – or at least a type of synonym. We use and invent them to lower the temperature of “hot button” words or subjects. We use this device to neutralize words that make us feel uncomfortable. Our culture does the same thing generally and hence, “political correctness.” Keyes says, “Euphemisms are an accurate barometer of changing attitudes,” and that is the theme of his book.
Just as some felt that religion was a tool of the state and aristocracy to control the masses, now many feel that language has become an instrument of commercial, political and postmodern doublespeak. Reminds me of 1984. California researchers, Bandler and Grinder made a case for our individual choices of words being an insight to our psyche. According to them, our subconscious choice of predicates was significant. If that’s correct, what does it say about our conscious use of euphemisms?
Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms is not a reference book, although it does have a complete bibliography and a thorough index. Unlike a dictionary or thesaurus, it isn’t intended as a quick look up type book. Rather it is filled with stories and commentaries on both historical and contemporary euphemisms.
Stories make the history and evolution of our language both charming and memorable. The Smothers Brothers employed the creativity of their writers along with their ulterior motives to slip puns and cultural references (often sexual) by the censors. Others, like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce were more blunt. Perhaps as much as any famous politician, Winston Churchill was the source of many stories involving not just language, but the differences in usage of the same language by different countries (Wilde and Shaw). No doubt, William Safire would have reveled in participation in this discussion. Despite the changes in our culture and society, we still seem to have problems/issues/opportunities with sex, anatomy, death, war, and money. Is Playboy a “skin mag” or a “gentlemen’s” publication? Keyes offers absorbing, interesting, and often humorous stories of how we use words. Whether you are a writer, reader or both, Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms deserves a spot in your library, perhaps right next to Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories.