By Clover Carroll
Next month, I’ll be moving to a new house—or as my realtor would correct me, a new home. It is a “handyman’s delight”—which is a nice way of saying it’s a dump that will require a lot of work to make it livable.
So last night, I was invited to a party to meet my new neighbors. As I entered the modest, one-story ranch, I was greeted by my host.
“Welcome to our castle!” he sang out as he pumped my arm in a vigorous handshake. “Come right in, can I get you a long tall one? Most of us are hitting the sauce, you know, tying one on, getting sloshed.” he chortled, winking broadly. “All except my wife—she’s got a bun in the oven, so she’s on the wagon, bless her heart.” His wife, filling trays of hors-d’oeuvres nearby, looked daggers at him. “Thank you so much for including me in your festivities,” I replied, and accepting the glass he handed me, headed into the living room to join the conversation.
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” one guest greeted me. “So where do you work?”
“I teach at the high school,” I said.
“No kidding, I used to teach there myself! Which classroom are you in?” she asked.
“Actually, I’m in one of the learning cottages—they call me Queen of the Double Wide,” I joked. “This month has been nothing but tests and more tests.”
“Don’t you mean assessments?” she asked with a laugh.
“What do you think of the situation in Ukraine?” a man in a nearby group was asking.
“That so-called ‘military exercise’ was nothing but a flat-out invasion!”
“You’re right,” another guest agreed. “If we used some ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on those not-Russian soldiers, they’d spill the beans fast enough!”
Not feeling in the mood for politics, I excused myself to go to the powder room.
These party-goers were accomplished users of euphemisms, that is, words or phrases that substitute a positive concept for a negative one.
A euphemism is a specialized use of metaphor—comparing alcohol to a condiment, for example—that serves either to avoid offending, or to outright dupe, our listeners. Euphemisms soften an unpleasant or offensive truth by substituting a more acceptable, usually indirect, alternative. It might be difficult to send our children off to take tests in trailers, but assessments in learning cottages? Not so bad. The United States doesn’t use torture—that would violate international law. But interrogation? No problem, whether enhanced or not.
Deriving from the Greek, euphemism literally means “good word” or “good speaking”—the opposite of blasphemy, or “evil speaking.” Some believe it is named after Eupheme, nurse to the muses in Greek mythology—giving it a connotation of healing.
From “pre-owned vehicle” (used car) to “love handle” (fat roll), we use euphemisms every day without thinking. They act as a social code that may be thought of as “oil in the wheels of society, allowing us to discuss…matters that are too hurtful or shaming to be spoken of directly (Michael Quinion, wordwidewords.org).” They “cover up the facts of life—of sex and reproduction and excretion—which inevitably remind even the most refined people that they are made of clay, or worse” (Hugh Rawson, Dictionary of Euphemisms (1981).
Many euphemisms surround the topic of death. It is so painful to acknowledge that someone we love has died that we say instead that s/he “passed on/away,” “met his/her maker,” “went home/to be with the Lord,” or was “laid to rest.” We also avoid describing the person as dead by referring to them as the departed, dearly beloved, or late (as in “my late mother”). Similarly, we avoid using the words kill or murder, replacing them instead with bump/ knock off, dispatch, execute, liquidate, or neutralize. The homicide rate is so much easier to contemplate than the murder rate.
Just think of all the euphemisms we’ve come up with for the room where we relieve ourselves! The toilet is nearest the truth, but how often do we instead visit the necessary, lavatory, john, water closet, or restroom?
Just as silly are the many ways we describe the act itself. Pardon me while I “take a leak/whizz,” “relieve myself,” or “use the facilities.” And I’ll try hard not to break wind before I go! As for my dog, I take him outside to “do his duty/business.” When viewed objectively, how preposterous is that?
Closely related to this category–because also involving our “private parts”–are the many euphemisms dealing with sex. When does harmless “necking,” “spooning,” or “making out” move closer to the realm of “hooking up,” “going all the way,” “getting laid,” “sleeping together,” or—the nicest of these expressions—“making love”? Gus Kahn had great fun with the wink-wink-nudge-nudge nature of these expressions when he wrote the song “Making Whoopee” (1928), considered quite risqué for its time. Women who do make whoopee should be careful not to end up “in trouble” or getting “in a family way.”
At its worst—for example in the context of finance, employment, and military actions, euphemism is “the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery, and deceit” (R.W. Holder, Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms (1995). Doesn’t “correctional facility” sound much more palatable than “jail”—thus sugar coating the idea of mass imprisonment? And after working for years as a sanitation engineer (garbage man), maintenance worker (janitor), or school resource officer (policeman), when there is a “financial downturn” (economic depression) we might be “let go” or given a “pink slip” when the company “downsizes,” “streamlines operations,” or “reconfigures resources to better align with emerging market conditions.” Does getting RIFed (Reduction in Force) really feel any better than getting fired? For other examples, watch George Carlin’s euphemism spoof on YouTube, where he traces the evolution of “shell shock” into “post traumatic stress disorder,” among others.
In the recent debate over whether to attack Syria, our leaders assured us it would only be a “surgical strike” (more appealing than targeted bombing) and would not involve “boots on the ground” (soldiers in the line of fire). Yet, even under these conditions we would likely cause “collateral damage” (a nicer way of saying civilian casualities).
George Orwell (1903-1950), in his brilliant dystopian novel 1984, warns us about the treacherous use of euphemisms in politics and advertising with his fictional “Newspeak.” The totalitarian Party turns language completely upside down, replacing objectionable ideas with their opposites. Big Brother is a warm, fuzzy name for the government’s constant surveillance of its citizens; if one transgresses, s/he may be sent to a “joycamp” to perform forced labor. The Ministry of Peace is actually the arm of the government that conducts war. This exaggerated use of euphemism highlights the way language can be used as a tool of manipulation.
Back at the party one woman was asking another, “Does this dress make me look fat?”
“Of course not!” came the answer. “You’re not fat—you’re just big-boned. That dress looks great on you!”
“Don’t listen to her,” the pleasingly plump woman scoffed. “She’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic.”
I said goodnight and headed home, knowing I would fit right in to this crowd.