Once during a dinner party, British statesman Winston Churchill asked the server for a breast of chicken. A woman sitting next to Churchill scolded him for uttering the vulgar word “breast.” Churchill wondered how he should have phrased the request to the server. “White meat,” came the reply. The next day, Churchill sent the woman a corsage along with the message “Pin this on your white meat.”
It seems appropriate to allow Churchill the final word. His response is difficult to top when discussing the pitfalls of euphemism.
As lovers of language know, the byways of English—its patterns and its idiosyncrasies—reveal a great deal about its users. Euphemisms are perhaps the most revealing byway of all.
One of the most insidious of all euphemisms shows up on the illustrated jacket of Ralph Keyes’s book: the term “friendly fire.” For those of us publishing nonfiction or fiction about American military invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam—to name three obvious wars—why are we softening the ugly reality of U.S. soldiers shooting other U.S. soldiers with the happy sounding (“friendly”) phrase?
Most of our readers will understand the underlying meaning of the term. But do those readers require an escape from ugly reality? And do other readers end up confused by the euphemism?
Lots of books about language convey “fun”—the fun of puns and jokes and famous quotations and homonyms and anagrams. Euphemisms, on the other hand, may be fun, but are not always fun and games.
Keyes recognizes the dangers to a society of relying on euphemisms—of, for example, “mincing words” (one chapter title) and using “brave new words” (another chapter title) to create an ambiguous and maybe downright harmful brave new world.
Here’s a key paragraph from Keyes’ playbook:
“Euphemisms are nothing if not adaptable. A BBC correspondent just back from covering the conflict in [the] Congo told a radio interviewer that soldiers there were ‘self provisioning.’ When asked what this meant, the correspondent conceded that was a euphemism for ‘loot and steal.’ Obviously, language evolves constantly. But in public discourse especially, its evolution has been in a blandly euphemistic direction. Taken to an extreme, as it so often is, such discourse can be deadly. That’s because it enlists words in the service of evasion rather than communication.”
The word “lying” sounds harsh. It should, because lies are hurtful. “Spinning” sounds less harsh. But “spinning” constitutes “lying,” so why not call it what it is?”
This is what Keyes terms euphemania—taking the sting out of frank, clear words by converting them into inoffensive, synonym-like versions that desensitize us to the implications of, say, torture (“applying pressure”) or a stock market collapse (“equity retreat”).”
As Keyes surveys the territory of euphemania, he devotes distinct chapters to euphemisms for sexual acts, parts of the human anatomy, defecation/urination, diseases, death, food, money and warfare.
It would be easy to fill the Paste website with remarkable examples that Keyes elucidates. One I have unthinkingly written hundreds of times (especially when serving as a Washington, D.C., correspondent for newspapers and magazines) involves the word “special.” As in “Joe Jones, the special assistant to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.”
What, if anything, is “special” about that special assistant named Joe Jones? What is so special about Joe Jones’s job that it should be termed “special?” Keyes cites another scholar of euphemisms, R.W. Holder, author of How Not to Say What You Mean, as stating “special” is a word that “makes the ears of a collector of euphemisms prick up.”
Other mea culpas: Why have I failed to challenge the government agency called the Defense Department, when Offense Department would often seem more appropriate? Why have I allowed climate change skeptics to define the degradation as an “issue” instead of as a “problem?” Why have I allowed an entire controversial industry to market “life insurance” instead of “death insurance?”
Many writers come dangerously close to crossing the line of untruth by, well, mincing words. Keyes points out the writers who term somebody “flushed” instead of “drunk;” exhibits “gravitas” instead of “pompousness;” “colorful” instead of “loudmouthed;” “mercurial” instead of “bad tempered.”
It is rarely pleasant to write about male impotence. But does that justify using the term “erectile dysfunction?”
I can’t stop just yet. That’s because euphemisms are about censorship, too, and, like all writers who make their living with words, I hate what censorship does to a virile democratic society. “Using euphemisms is the verbal equivalent of draping nude statues,” Keyes comments, and I do not want anybody in the society where I reside to decide that nude statues ought to be draped.
Hooray for the language lovers practicing what Keyes calls “candor restoration,” honing the edges of English. A group of lesbian motorcyclists term themselves “Dykes on Bikes.” Eve Ensler titles her play “Vagina Monologues.” Dick Gregory and Randall Kennedy both publish books titled “Nigger,” hoping public use of a taboo word will defang it. Other anti-euphemism heroes include James Joyce, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
I’m not a famous anti-euphemism hero. (Yet.) But I work hard as a writer and citizen to say what I mean. I have resided in two metropolises where my Caucasian heritage placed me in the minority. Still, I never use the term “inner city” or the term” ghetto” to mean a place where low-income blacks live. When euphemisms double as insulting racial or ethnic or gender stereotypes, the destruction doubles, too.
So … please, think before you speak. Or write. And thank Ralph Keyes for spending years compiling examples for a book about language that goes beyond mere fun. He’s a real spin-meister.
Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books.