Don’t say it
The art of dodging bad words
What could be more fun than mocking yesterday’s euphemisms? Open a copy of Mencken’s “The American Language” and you find our American forebears exclaiming “nerts!” (to avoid the naughty “nuts!”) and calling their legs “limbs” or “benders.” Then there are the benighted Brits, for whom Poe’s “The Gold Bug” was retitled “The Golden Beetle,” since “bug” to them meant only the (unmentionable) bedbug.
We may not be quite so delicate today, but euphemism — from the Greek for “auspicious speech” — is with us still. Our rooster and weather vane date from the 19th century, when cock became too vivid for polite American discourse. (So strong was the taboo that Bronson Alcocke, father of Louisa May, changed the family name to Alcott.) For public tough talk about courage, we translate our favorite English slang into Spanish, like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and compliment folks on their cojones. (Or tone it down further, George Will-style, and ask if a leader has the “kidneys” for the job.)
Euphemisms can be private or public, trivial or deadly, serious or joky — but they can’t be dispensed with, says Ralph Keyes in his new book “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms.” So long as humans have had things to be discreet about, they’ve had names that furnish some rhetorical distance from the things themselves. “Penis, Latin for ‘tail,’ in Cicero’s time was put to work as a euphemism for the male sex organ,” notes Keyes. (And just as some writers groused, in recent decades, that a former meaning of gay had been filched from them, Cicero complained that he could no longer call a tail a tail, now that the word meant something else.)
For modern Americans, of course, penis is just the scientifically correct name. Over the centuries, the job of euphemizing the organ has been handed off to hundreds of other words, some short-lived and others more durable. This is the typical life of a euphemism: a ride on what Keyes calls the “euphemism carousel” and Steven Pinker called the “euphemism treadmill.” By either metaphor, a euphemism wears out as it becomes too familiarly linked to the thing it designates; its distancing powers fade, and it’s abandoned, temporarily or permanently, for a newer term.
Any word, however inoffensive it looks, can wear out its welcome this way. It’s hard to imagine a more abstract word than undertaker, for instance: “One who undertakes a task.” But as a euphemism for “one who handles funerals,” it acquired a morbid aura in less than 200 years. By the end of the 19th century, writes Keyes, “undertakers had promoted themselves first to funeral directors, then to morticians...presumably because it sounded like ‘physician.’ ”
This process takes time, naturally; at the moment, some American parents think butt is a fine word for kids to use, while others still hear it as vulgar. Specific terms aside, though, we all know how to tailor our language to the audience of the moment. Even the most plain-spoken among us seem content with a world where some words are off limits to 3-year-olds and radio bloviators. And this euphemizing of intimate matters — death, bodily functions, sex — seems like a perfectly reasonable social contract: I’ll pretend I would never picture you on the toilet, or in your coffin, if you’ll pretend the same in return.
But euphemisms, as Keyes notes, aren’t limited to these universal human realms. They also have their dark, Orwellian public side. And the use of euphemism by the powerful — insiders and authorities of all stripes — involves a different relationship between the euphemizer and euphemizee. We all know what “passed away” really means, whether it’s our idiom or not. But when a finance guy euphemizes risky investments as “subprime loans” or a military officer calls dead civilians “collateral damage,” the obfuscating language can begin to sound like professional terminology — the equivalent of the doctor’s “MI” for “heart attack” — rather than what it is, an intentional attempt at misdirection. When euphemisms cover up things we aren’t familiar with (and often don’t want to know better), they’re much more insidious than the polite evasions of everyday life.
In fact, the whole subject would be easier to talk about if we assigned euphemisms to two separate categories — benign and malign, maybe. To call the room where you urinate a “bathroom” or refer to a sexual act as “sleeping with” is hardly sinister; it’s merely following a set of cultural expectations, just like using napkins or saying “please pass the salt.” Describing a patient’s MRI as “worrisome” rather than “dire” may be a (temporary) hedge, but it’s also a human gesture.
But telling citizens that torture is “abuse” and mercenaries are “contractors” — or in Orwell’s words, that burning and bombing villages is “pacification” — is a different sort of enterprise. These euphemisms — the top-down terminology invented and deployed to serve the interests of the coiners — are the ones that give “euphemism” a bad name.