12/16/10 - euphemisms

In today's excerpt - euphemisms are an accurate gauge of what makes our society most uncomfortable, and since what makes society uncomfortable is constantly changing, there is a constant need for new euphemisms:

"Euphemisms are an accurate barometer of changing attitudes. That is the theme of this book. Verbal evasions put a spotlight on what most concerns human beings at any given time.

"There is no better illustration of our changing euphemistic climate than the way we refer to children whose parents aren't married. These 'bastards' or 'children of sin' became illegitimate children, which begot born out of wedlock. During the late-eighteenth century, born on the wrong side of the blanket was a slangy euphemism for those presumably conceived somewhere other than a married couple's bed. In the Midwest, gone to visit her aunt in Indiana was once a euphemism for going to a home for unwed mothers. Today, we care so little about the marital status of a child's parents that we seldom even bother with such circumlocutions. At worst, we talk of love children or a love child. In general, though, the increasingly common fact that a child's parents aren't married is barely considered worth a euphemism.

"The terms we use and those we avoid reflect deeper concerns, which change over time. Several centuries ago, when religion reigned, we converted 'damn' to darn and 'hell' to heck. Then prudery kicked in, and the gonads became family jewels, and the vagina, down there. Today, it's death, disability, and discrimination that provide fodder for euphemisms, as we grope for inoffensive terms to designate loved ones who have died, those with physical or intellectual limitations, and members of minority groups.

"Although a society in which bumper stickers say SHIT HAPPENS and T-shirts proclaim LIFE IS A BITCH, THEN YOU DIE may have dispensed with many of the genteel euphemisms used in days of yore, it has hardly dispensed with euphemisms altogether. Even topics we discuss more candidly today than before are still subject to euphemizing, though with updated terminology. According to a 2008 press account, for example, a Belmont, Massachusetts, resident reported to police that an 'anatomically correct term' had been spray-painted on a local fence.

"Much as we might like to think that our modes of expression involve a straight trajectory of opening up, shedding inhibitions, and becoming more candid, that's just not the case. The terms and targets of our euphemizing have simply shifted. An explosion of topics have become eligible for euphemistic discourse: not only the usual suspects of sex, body parts, and bodily secretions, but also money, diseases, and certain foods, to name just a few of the many subjects we euphemize today.

"Euphemisms have gone from being a tool of the church to a form of gentility to an instrument of commercial, political, and postmodern doublespeak. Our time is one in which 'sweet words dance hand in hand with dreadful facts,' writes D. J. Enright in the excellent essay collection Fair of Speech: The Uses of Euphemism. Originally meant to avoid blasphemy and be polite, euphemisms are now just as likely to be a tool of coverup and obfuscation. Businesses that once showed 'losses' now have negative cash flow. Politicians don't 'lie' but do sometimes misspeak. Bombardiers no longer 'drop bombs'; they unleash vertically deployed antipersonnel devices.

"Because what makes us uncomfortable changes with the times, there is a constant demand for new euphemisms. And we are up to the task of supplying them. 'It is a poor week when I fail to note two or three new euphemisms,' observes euphemism compiler R. W Holder."


Ralph Keyes


Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms


Little, Brown


Copyright 2010 by Ralph Keyes


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