Thursday, August 13, 2015

Euphemisms: Do we have too many?

Not long ago, I wrote a post about the prevalence of cliches, and why writers are instructed to ruthlessly weed them out. I've been thinking about another form of speech, the euphemism, which flies under the radar but is possibly even more annoying.

A euphemism is a roundabout way of expressing something to soften the impact, because the most direct way may be considered too blunt or offensive. At first I assumed many euphemisms might have disappeared with the Victorian era. Those were the days when ladies' sensibilities were fashionably delicate, and even table and piano legs were covered for modesty. However, euphemisms are still flourishing, even in the twenty-first century. So much so that we might not even realise when we are using them. Here are some examples.

Euphemisms that are intended to soften the blow.
b) John is a bit long in the tooth to play football with the boys. (He's old.)
c) Peter is a bit light on top for that sort of hairdo. (He's bald.)
d) We decided to place Jimmy in the special class. (Whoever invented that euphemism surely didn't intend the word 'special' in the traditional sense of the word. When you think about it, that one is sort of condescending.)
e) The ladies of the night stand on that street corner. (Everyone but the children would know their occupation immediately.)
f) The soldiers were killed by friendly fire. (One of the most ironic and sad euphemisms of all, for bureaucratic botch-ups.)

Euphemisms that give rise to others
Bob is visually challenged. (In other words, he's blind, but short people may take it on board and jokingly refer to themselves as 'vertically challenged'.)

Euphemisms that are no longer recognised as such.
Eddie slept with Sue. (Okay, we all know what this really means.)
Mary is carrying a few extra kilos. (You mean she's fat.)
I'm afraid I had to let David go. (In other words, he was fired. The connotation of this euphemism makes it sound as if the employer is doing David a favour.)

Euphemisms that may be as hurtful or worse than the most direct expression.
Roger is just a couch potato. (The imagery is so ruthless, the word 'lazy' may be less insulting.)
The twins' grandma has lost her marbles. (Would the word 'dementia' be any unkinder?)
Richard got Tracy up the duff. (Isn't it far less insulting and coarse to simply say she's pregnant?)

Those euphemisms are closely connected to my favourite.

Euphemisms that have become so over-used, they now have euphemisms of their own.

The word 'toilet' is a prime example. In the olden days, polite people didn't want to say where they were headed, so they resorted to this euphemism. A 'toile' was an old-fashioned French word for a piece of cloth which ladies placed around their necks while they were getting ready for social events. As a kid, I didn't know this. Whenever I came across a sentence, such as, 'Josephine set off to do her toilet,' I'd think, 'Yuck, too much information. Why do we need to know that?' Then one day, it dawned on me that she was actually sitting at her dressing table with her wash cloth and make-up.

So it became a euphemism for the you-know-where (another euphemism), all tied in with cleanliness and grooming. But now what's happened? After decades of being over-used, the word has lost its edge. It's come to stand for what it really is. People now think of several different ways of saying it.

'Can you point me to the bathroom?' (Being an Aussie kid, I used to think, 'Yuck, who'd want to wash themselves in there?)  We hear it called the rest room, the John, the lavatory/lavvy, the loo, the dungeon, the dunny and the little boys'/girls' room.

The future of euphemisms

I can't help thinking that if cliches are menaces, euphemisms may be more so because they are more sneaky. They masquerade as something sensitive and good, yet carry the same tired old baggage as cliches. I can't help wondering whether people from foreign cultures who are trying to learn English get crazily mixed-up, trying to figure out whether or not our expressions are literal. (Is now the time to complain about his cold feet? He only needs to wear warm socks beneath his shoes when he walks up the aisle to marry her.)

However, euphemisms have ancient origins, and having been around for so long, are no doubt here to stay. Even Jesus used euphemisms. He told his disciples, 'Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go to wake him up.' Being a bit obtuse when it came to picking up on subtleties, they said, 'Lord, if he sleeps, he will get well.' Just to make it crystal clear, in case we're slow like the disciples, the Bible tells us, 'Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought He was speaking about taking rest in sleep.' Next, Jesus told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead.' It's not difficult to imagine Him rolling His eyes. (This incident takes place in John 11: 11-15.)

It all begs the question, if many euphemisms tend to be silly and pointless, is saying the real thing preferable? What do you think?


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