When you can’t call a spade a spade
To cover our ears when we say what we simply must not say, we constantly coin instead words that are more muted and polite.
Thus underdeveloped countries became developing ones, a little bastard is a lovechild and the stock market collapse is an equity retreat. We are nothing if not politically correct when it comes to our prejudices. Yesterday’s ladies of the night are today’s escorts, frigid women are only pre-orgasmic, liars are in denial, and philanderers have zipper management issues.
There is a constant need to hone our hypocrisy, to overcome our hang-ups, which is where euphemisms, the caped super-words, come to our rescue against those big bad words we never want to utter. Euphemisms, the comfort food of conversation, are the meat in Unmentionables: From Family Jewels To Friendly Fire — What We Say Instead Of What We Mean by Ralph Keyes.
In this treasure trove, he delightfully records a million such phrases, words, slangs and literary usages along with their etymology.
In the merry-go-round of everyday speech, social acceptance governs the existence and eventual death of euphemisms. “We rely on euphemisms to tiptoe around what makes us uneasy… Euphemisms are a function of their times,’ says Keyes. Eupheme, by the way, was the nurse of ancient Greece’s Muses, literally meaning ‘good speaking’.
Euphemisms keep the ‘beep’ out of our daily chat. When in doubt, go Latin: phallus, pudenda, areola, testes, coitus… New happenings spawn new vocab so that keeping up with the times can be a tongue-twister. If Justin Timberlake hadn’t grabbed Janet Jackson on stage, there would be no wardrobe malfunction. Britney Spears, Yana Gupta and others would just be boring old flashers.
Keyes rounds up all the usual suspects in realms of anatomy, sex and medicine, apart from general parlance. Sex is it (let’s do it), do (let me do you), and even be (I want to be with you). Necking, petting, boodling, fooling, romping, rantum-scantum, roger, congress, hump, shag, sleep with, hook up and intercourse are all about ‘the beast with two backs’ in Shakespeare’s Othello. Cherry, interestingly, replaced hymen only to be re-replaced by hymen.
Cancer, the C-word, continues the complication. “Twenty-five centuries ago Hippocrates compared the veins snaking out from tumours to crabs, karkinos in Greek. Its Latin translation was cancer.” A cancer patient was described as “having a touch of the Cs”. Terrible sickness and a lingering illness are other C-euphemisms. A tumour is a lump, a growth or mass.
Money, the M-word, has its own telling currency: moolah, bread, dough, scratch, funds, etc. The ‘broke’ are financially constrained, a little short or have cash flow problems. You have to admit, ‘reduced profitability’ sounds better than ‘loss’!
As Keyes says: “Euphemising represents a forlorn hope that renaming something might change its essence. Negative connotations are not in taboo words themselves, however, but in what they refer to. As a result, euphemisms can only protect our sensibilities for so long.” Which is a euphemism for: more euphemisms are being born even as we speak.