By John McDonnell
If you’ve ever called the fat around your waist “love handles” or ever said a friend was “downsized” when he was fired, you’ve used euphemisms. We all do it, according to Ralph Keyes, author of “Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms”. I heard Ralph interviewed on NPR the other day, and I want to buy his book because I love the way we humans try to pretty up the unpleasant things in our lives by using fancy words for them.
I have a graduate degree in English, so I’ve read a lot of poetry, and I’m on good terms with simile and metaphor and the way language can be used to convey reality in many creative ways. I love euphemisms because they show verbal creativity and humor (although there’s a fair bit of hypocrisy in there too).
Like saying “powder room” for toilet.
Or “misspeak” for lie.
Or how about “correctional facility” for prison? “Big-boned” or “full-figured” for fat?
The military is famous for its euphemisms. Here are a few:
“wet work” for assassination;
“collateral damage” for civilian deaths;
“friendly fire” for soldiers killed by their own comrades;
and “soft targets” for humans.
One of my favorite military euphemisms is, “strategic movement to the rear” for retreat.
Corporations can be every bit as euphemistic as the military, though. Besides “downsizing”, modern corporate speak has given us “called on the carpet” for being disciplined, “outsourcing” for sending work abroad, “a market correction” for a drastic plunge in stock prices, a “merger” for a corporate takeover, “negative cash flow” for losing money, and “right-sizing” for laying people off. Actually, the list of corporate euphemisms for laying off employees would take up more space than the Bible.
And then there are the so-called dirty words. George Carlin had a famous comedy routine about the “Seven Dirty Words” you couldn’t say on the air in the U.S. These are words that used to be taboo in polite company, so people would use euphemisms for them. Of course, today the taboos are breaking down, and you can hear many of the Seven Dirty Words on TV and radio every day.
Carlin called euphemisms “soft language”. He didn’t like them, because he thought that euphemisms were an attempt to deny reality. He had a whole riff on why “shell shock” is a better term than “post-traumatic stress disorder”, because it’s “simple, honest, direct” language.
It’s true that we sometimes use euphemisms to avoid naming unpleasant things. We soften the reality with a euphemism so we don’t have to think about the nasty stuff underneath.
As long as humans exist, however, the situation won’t change. We have an innate ability to see fish eggs and call it caviar, or cow dung and. . . well, you get the idea.
What’s your favorite euphemism?