The Quirky History of Euphemisms
I have been having a lot of fun reading Ralph Keyes’s latest book Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms. He’s a smart guy and he’s written a lot of smart books – this is his fifteenth book – and this is another one.
Keyes opens his fascinating book with a story of two elderly bachelor brothers who’ve agreed to take in a pregnant high school student.
They show her around this old farmhouse. At the threshold of a small room, one says, “Here”s where you step out.” The girl looks puzzled.
“You know,” explains the man. “The commode. The indoor outhouse. Well, what do you call it?”
“That’ll do fine,” says a teacher accompanying the girl.
“That’s what she always called it,” continues the man, referring to his mother. “I’m just trying to be proper. I’m just trying to get us started off on the right chalk.”
“Aren’t we all?” Keyes writes, letting us know this elderly bachelor brother “was struggling with the age-old challenge of finding respectable euphemisms for dubious terms.”
And what is a euphemism?
“Words or phrases substituted for one that makes us uneasy,” Keyes says. They are, he writes, “Technically … a form of synonym. But they have far heavier freight to carry. That freight is what Euphemania is about.”
And for us word lovers, he lets us know right away where the word comes from: “Eupheme,” he writes, “was the nurse of ancient Greece’s Muses. Her name means ‘good speaking’ (eu = ‘good,’ pheme = ‘speaking.)” And good speaking is what this book, Ralph Keyes’s wonderful new book Euphemania, is all about.
First off, I like all the history it gives, a lot in the opening chapter in which he speaks broadly about his subject, how euphemisms are created and why – which, he says, “usually involves reducing the temperature of overheated terms” – and a lot more peppered throughout the rest of the book. There’s a bit of history, and it’s great fun, in each and every chapter.
It’s a short book, only 248 pages, eleven chapters, and I liked them all, but I especially liked chapter three, “Speaking of Sex,” where Keyes covers everything from masturbation to promiscuity, from “Doing it” to “Sex Talk.”
Then there is the lovely chapter on “Secretions and Excretions” (chapter five) in which he tells us “there’s an intimate relationship between disgust and euphemizing.” “Anything that nauseates us, disgusts us, revolts us,” he says, “we’re going to euphemize.” In this one there’s a section on “Windbreaks” which, being a bit scatological myself, I found quite interesting and delightful – but, and here’s one of the great things the book does, it not only delights, it can teach you something as well: “Because euphemisms for gas emitted from the rectum are more universal than most,” Keyes writes, “they have provided a useful tool for tracing the evolution of language.” Apparently someone broke wind as early as 1552 and I am happy to know that.
The section in this chapter called “The Smallest Room” also fascinated me. To read about the history of our struggle to find a way to talk about what we today call “the bathroom” – itself a euphemism – was pretty darned interesting and a lot of fun, too.
And this is the way of the book. In each of the chapters Keyes takes us into another area of human functioning where euphemisms have and had their day. He takes us into the world of doctors and medicine, for example, where his short and informative discussion of consumption and what it really is was great. There, too, the tiny bit of history on the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which killed 40 million people worldwide, was wonderful. The discussion of menstruation and all its euphemisms was interesting. How initials abound in the medical field, how BO became such a prominent term, how complex and fascinating “medspeak” is and can be – all fascinating.
Do you know about Rocky Mountain oysters? Do you know what it means to be “three sheets to the wind?” What “a little pick me up” is. “A wee drop”? Ever had “one too many” and awakened the next morning feeling a bit “under the weather”? Did you know money was one of our most taboo topics? A subject many of us feel is the most private thing we can ever talk about? Want to tell me how much do you make?
I was particularly interested in his discussion of how euphemisms played a large role in the financial crisis that began in 2007, that we’re still in. Keyes makes it clear how words, phrases, and language that evades, hides, obfuscates, all these financial euphemisms, served the nefarious ones responsible for perhaps the greatest financial disaster since the Great Depression. He is convincing in his claim that euphemisms serve the predatory merchant, the cynical ad exec. “We pay a price,” he says, getting a bit political – and my only regret is that he didn’t do more of this, didn’t get more political more often – “We pay a price for the increasing manipulation of language on behalf of commerce.” He makes it clear we’re being tricked and duped, confused and bamboozled.
In politics, too, we pay a price: we don’t lie, we “misspeak.” We don’t lie, we “exercise poor judgment.” Bernie Madoff, who stole billions of dollars from his customers, those who trusted him to invest their money, apologized, Keyes writes, for his “error in judgment.” His error in judgment?!
One of my favorite sections of the book was in chapter ten, “Brave New Worlds,” where Keyes spoke of how established politicians manipulate language to achieve their ends. How “euphemisms have become an integral part of political and social agendas. Politicians of every stripe compete to portray their positions in the most benign language available … Words matter … As political figures like to say, ‘Name it and frame it.’”
Keyes ends his book asking why do we do it – for comfort, he says, for consolation, he says, for privacy, too – and then finishes us off with this:
It is well established that humans have a gene called FOXP2 that allows us to speak. We also know that different parts of our brains manage speech differently. Those who lose their ability to use complex language after suffering damage to the parts of the brain that control conscious thought processes often retain an ability to curse that’s rooted in the most primitive limbic region of their brains. Some linguists believe that swearing is only a distant cousin to speaking per se, more an ejaculation than a serious attempt to communicate. That could explain why the capacity to use bad words often outlives the loss of an ability to use good ones. Following a stroke, say, some patients who are incapable of saying, “How are you?” can still exclaim, “Damn!”
Evasive speech apparently originates in the newer parts of our brain where complex thought originates. While words that we utter spontaneously when provoked are more likely to emerge from the uncensored limbic brain, given an opportunity to ruminate we turn to the cortex and choose from among its vast archive of euphemisms. Since the brain and a capacity to speak have evolved jointly, it may even be that creating euphemisms contributed to our ability to think.
Euphemistic words for topics such as bears and flatulence are among our oldest and most universal. Medical researcher Valerie Curtis thinks that a need for euphemisms to refer to body secretions and other toxic effluvia could be one of the earliest linguistic imperatives felt by human beings. The same thing might be true of euphemisms for sexual activity, a topic that is typically taboo because of its potential for disrupting the social order (among other things).
One might even argue that the need to come up with euphemisms for terms considered taboo is our most ancient source of verbal creativity.
And Ralph Keyes wonderful new book, Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, just might convince you he’s right.
– Jimmy Chesire