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Verbal Energy

Euphemistically speaking

The impulse to find more refined ways to talking about unpleasant truths is a constant of the human experience; what changes over time are the topics deemed to need sugarcoating.

By Ruth Walker / April 19, 2011



When two different colleagues suggest I should pay attention to a book, I tend to take notice. The book in question is "Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms," by Ralph Keyes.

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It is a lighthearted, easy read, but not without erudition.

Sex, disease, death, and body parts all loom large here – quelle surprise. But Keyes puts it all into a larger context. He quotes University of Chicago linguist Joseph Williams: "Euphemism is such a pervasive human phenomenon, so deeply woven into virtually every known culture, that one is tempted to claim that every human has been pre-programmed to find ways to talk about tabooed subjects."

For prehistoric peoples who believed that to mention directly something they feared would tend to bring it forth, it made sense to refer to bears as "honey-eaters," Keyes notes.

He goes into current brain research to explain, "Evidence ... suggests that cursing may be a form of protolanguage that has more in common with a dog's bark than, say, Plato's Republic." On the other hand, he says, "Evasive speech apparently originates in the newer parts of our brain where complex thought originates. While words that we utter spontaneously when provoked are more likely to emerge from the uncensored limbic brain, given an opportunity to ruminate we turn to the cortex and choose from among its vast supply of euphemisms. Since the brain and a capacity to speak have evolved jointly, it may even be that creating euphemisms contributed to our ability to think."

It all makes me feel somewhat better about what Keyes calls "the euphemizing instinct."

Euphemism comes from Greek words meaning "to speak with fair words, use words of good omen," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Eupheme was the name of "the ancient Greek female spirit of words of good omen, praise, acclaims, shouts of triumph, and applause," according to Wikipedia.

"The words we use and those we avoid illustrate what we care about most deeply. Euphemisms are the press secretary of values," Keyes says.

It's in the realm of public policy that euphemism makes the most trouble today, Keyes suggests. And here it may be useful to distinguish between instinctive euphemism and strategic euphemism. "Global warming" has been knocked out of the box by "climate change," for instance – a strategic euphemism that's won bipartisan support.

Not long ago the financial sector was nearly brought down by its involvement in loans known as "subprime." This ought to mean simply "below first rate." But it really meant way below first rate, and a lot of people getting first-rate salaries should have been paying enough attention to stop it.

And speaking of the corporate sector, Keyes says, "The tortured prose in annual reports both conceals problems and promotes the muddled thinking that created those problems in the first place. By contrast, direct speech reflects clear thinking. The Ford Motor Company – whose then-CEO wrote in a 2002 annual report that the previous year's results were 'unacceptable' – weathered the subsequent auto industry collapse far better than its mealymouthed competitors."

It may be that euphemism is most helpful when it gets us talking about difficult subjects. But there comes a time when clear thinking and direct action are needed.

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