Euphemisms old and new
Celebrating "Euphemania": A Wayne Gretzkying Great Book
Euphemisms — those "comfort words" and "verbal kabuki," as Ralph Keyes puts it — are everywhere. In a world of bed intruders, enhanced pat-downs, corn sugar, and kinetic events (the American Dialect Society's top euphs of 2010) it certainly feels like the current moment is more soaked with euphemisms than the honest, straightforward era of the bygone days, when a man was a man and a mirdle was a girdle.
Not so. The history of euphemisms is nearly as long as language itself, and the vocabulary of euphemism could fill the Grand Canyon. In his book Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, Keyes puts the timeless practice of euphemizing into a powerful context: as an ongoing record of those topics that give us the most heebie-jeebies. As Keyes puts it, "An excellent way to determine what we find embarrassing is to examine our verbal evasions. They indicate what's on our minds. What's bugging us. What makes us uneasy. What topics we consider taboo." Whether you've been laughing at euphemisms since George Carlin's earliest routines or just learned to appreciate terms like hand hygiene event (hand-washing) yesterday, you will love this book.
Keyes structures Euphemania around those topics that makes us squirm — like sex, death, and money — and uses euphemisms as a type of squirm-ometer that shows just how uncomfortable we can be. At different times, euphs cluster around the topics folks most want to keep at arm's length. Sometimes it's the wrath of God; other times, the wrath of bears. These days, it tends to be racism or the topic of race itself. Given our twitchiness about race, it's no surprise we are the people who scrubbed Mark Twain's Huck Finn of the word nigger and replaced it with slave. That happened well after Keyes' book came out, but the use of slave is certainly what Keyes calls a "verbal spotlight" on our anxieties.
This thematic focus allows Keyes to squeeze in just about every type of euphemism along the way. While euphemisms reflect their time, some are timeless, like the enduring euphs sleep with and pass away. Some come from office life, like the techie term PICNIC (problem in chair, not in computer). Others come from TV, like Seinfeld's the Penske file, which Costanza-like, goof-off employees are forever said to be working on. As Keyes points out, some euphemisms are so established they hardly seem euphemistic at all — like life insurance as a smiley face on what is truly death insurance. Beef is another example. That four-letter word doesn't feel euphemistic to me, but I have to admit a more straightforward word would be cow. One section that I enjoyed was event-based euphemisms such as hit the slide and hike the Appalachian trail — terms that enjoy their 15 nanoseconds of fame before sliding back into the lexical ooze.
You don't have to be a foodie (a euphemism for gourmet, by the way) to enjoy Keyes' observations about food terms. On the attempted rebranding of prunes as dried plums, Keyes notes that, "This illustrates the penchant for renaming engaged in by merchants who long ago replaced shamans and priests as our primary supplies of euphemisms" and "French is a godsend" in this department. Since I'm a sucker for pommes frites (French fries), I may a victim of the seductive spell of the French tongue myself. Word magic is powerful. I can pretty much guarantee I wouldn't be eating much delicious tuna if it were still called horse mackerel.
Though rebranding tuna probably isn't one of humanity's top 500 crimes, Keyes is well aware of the dark side of euphemisms. I can't argue with this statement: "When we use them to avoid facing problems, those problems become harder to solve." His chapter on the malarkey-soaked jargon of the recent econo-pocalypse is a compelling case for grabbing a torch and a pitchfork and hunting down every euphemism like it was Frankenstein's monster. But the overall flavor of this book is celebratory and respectful toward euphemisms and euphemizers. Keyes reinforced my belief that euphemizing, though sometimes sneaky and squirrely, takes a lot of smarts. As Keyes puts it: "Saying what we mean takes a high order of intelligence. It takes an even higher order to not say what we mean, while still conveying our thought." Maybe they're not as impressive as the wheel or the iPod, but humanity shows brains galore in concocting terms such as zipper-management issues (a Bill Clinton problem), vital statistics form (death certificate), and nervous breakthrough (smearing some verbal lipstick on nervous breakdown).
Keyes also shows how individual writers can have a blast coming up with their own euphemisms, like one writer who used floss to replace the f-word, or another who got even more creative by using Wayne Gretzky (and Walter Gretzky, the Great One's dad) as substitutes for potty language. In The New Yorker, Tad Friend wrote about an expletive-filled Kevin Smith performance like so: "'I won't remember anything else about tonight,' Smith said, 'but I will remember my kid trying to plink her way through that Beatles song backstage in the Maestro Suite at Walter Gretzkying Carnegie Hall.'"
That kind of creativity should make even a curmudgeon appreciate the beauty of euphemisms, and there's a metric truckload of it on display in Keyes' impressive contribution to euphemology. You'll learn, you'll laugh, and you'll thank your lucky Gretzkys that Keyes wrote this book.