Euphemisms: The Politics of Language

Reviewed: Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, by Ralph Keyes. New York. Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

As Ralph Keyes notes in his book Euphemania, “Euphemisms can have a bright side and a dark side.” They can be a source of evasion, a way to avoid topics that should be confronted, a way of choosing not to face unpleasant truths. At worst, euphemisms are employed by politicians, bureaucrats, merchants, and others as tools of manipulation. Ronald Reagan, for example, renamed the multiwarhead MX missile, capable of destroying multiple major cities and killing tens, or even hundreds, of millions of civilians – Peacekeeper.

When used judiciously, however, euphemisms can civilize discourse and be a welcome source of courtesy in rough times. At their best they can be creative verbal fresheners that make it easier to discuss touchy subjects. In his book Nigger Dick Gregory uses a taboo word to make us focus on its wide and often thoughtless use in our society. Playwright Eve Ensler does much the same thing in Vagina Monologues.

In Euphemania, Keyes traces the evolution of euphemisms about sex, excretions, disease, food, and many other subjects in great detail. The story of how – and why – these changes have occurred is interesting in itself, as well as being a tribute to his scholarship.

The word “bear“ is an interesting example. It‘s the oldest known euphemism, first recorded a thousand years ago, that means “the brown one.” Bears are so terrifying that early northern Europeans referred to them by substitute names, for fear that uttering their real name might beckon these ferocious beasts. Instead, the animals were referred to as “the honey eater” or “the licker.”

This tactic of not calling something terrible by its actual name, lest this bring it forth, was used often. In one of his novels, Stendhal depicts a mother who refuses to call her tubercular son’s illness by its actual name for fear that doing so might hasten his death. Tuberculosis was, of course, the major fatal disease of the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth. .

Similarly, Emily Dickenson’s biographer concluded that the poet was a closet epileptic, who could only refer to that affliction obliquely. During Dickenson’s mid-nineteenth century era epilepsy was considered shameful for men to have and unmentionable, literally, for women.

More recently cancer has been treated in the same way, as I know from my own experience. My mother always whispered the word, as if saying it out loud would bring on the affliction.

Keyes, always aware of the political and ethnic implications of euphemisms, illustrates also describes the many diseases named after ethnic groups. Thus English speakers called syphilis “Spanish pox.” After French soldiers who besieged Naples in the fifteenth century brought the disease back to France it became known as the Neapolitan disease. Italians preferred French malady, Poles called it German disease, Russians opted for Polish disease, Turks termed it Christian disease. The Japanese called syphilis Portuguese disease while the Portuguese called it Castilian disease. The English, Dutch, Greek, Arabs, and “Hebrews” came in for similar treatment in other contests. With this background it’s little wonder that European history is often a tale of war after war.

The marketplace is a rich, if often misleading, source of euphemisms, some rather dated, some quite new. In the dated but amusing category, Lifebuoy Health Soap had warned consumers about the dangers of body odor, or BO. The presence of BO in thirteen key areas of the body stood between them and social success. Eradicating BO with Lifebuoy “can help you win friends wherever you go” read one ad. The soap’s advertising campaign goes on to describe relationships saved, leading to eventual marriage. One ad even describes a crash with a truck that had been avoided; Lifebuoy playing an important role in preventing this tragedy.

Language manipulation is rampant in the marketplace. For example the word “used,” as in used merchandise, was itself a euphemism for secondhand.. Now it’s been replaced by pre-owned or, better yet, vintage. In a similar vein one airline installed stationary seats on its airplanes and called them pre-reclined. What once were called “junk stores” became thrift shops, then resale stores. And a leading purveyor of coffee calls its smallest cup “tall.”

The government sometimes colludes in this misleading gibberish. With the approval of the US Department of Agriculture, a certain amount of Mechanically Separated Meat –  a slurry of marginal meat such as tendons, bone marrow, and a permitted amount of bone bits, can be included in hot dogs.

Today a new group of terms, or in some cases old ones with new scope, affect our thinking. Among them are national security, climate change, urban, perhaps class (middle, working, and otherwise). These terms illustrate the stress that Keyes puts on the need for care in using words.