Word Play: Euphemisms

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, March 15th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. You know, Nick, people don’t speak as plainly as they ought to.

EICHER: You mean they speak in a circumlocutory way.

REICHARD: Mmm-hmm. That’s it. Bugs me. Trying to evade.

EICHER: Well there are unpleasant things that are difficult to talk about. And sometimes we just churn out a word salad.

REICHARD: Yea, George Carlin, not a clean comedian, we know. But he did have a great riff on, well, you said it! Circumlocution.

CARLIN: Thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won’t have to die. I’ll pass away. Or I’ll expire like a magazine  subscription. If it happens in a hospital, they’ll call it a terminal episode. And if it’s the result of malpractice, they’ll say it was a therapeutic misadventure. I’m tellin’ ya, some of this language makes me wanna …engage in an involuntary personal protein spill!

EICHER: Ah, euphemisms!

REICHARD: [Laughter] Let’s just have George Grant clear this up.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: A euphemism is the use of a mild, indirect, or vague term to replace one considered to be harsh, blunt, or offensive. Euphemistic discourse attempts to put a positive spin on unpleasant, difficult, or taboo subjects.

It is akin to diplomatic language in which “We had a frank exchange of views” might more accurately mean, “We hurled insults at each other for the better part of an hour.”

Often euphemisms are a form doublespeak—one of the central themes of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984, where oppressive falsehood paraded as truth in the form of doublethink and newspeak.

The word comes from the Greek euphemismos, literally meaning “the use of a favorable word in place of an inauspicious one, or a superstitious avoidance of words of ill-omen.” Most literary style guides treat the use of euphemism as a dishonest type of sugar-coated wordiness—something to be avoided in formal reports or essays. Nevertheless, tranquilizing euphemistic speech abounds. “Euphemism is especially frequent,” says linguist John Algeo, “when we must come face to face with the less happy facts of our existence.”

Recently, a major corporation described its spate of job eliminations as “smart-sizing” its “core team in a skill-mix readjustment.” Really? Why not just say it: those employees were not downsized or de-staffed; they were canned; they were booted; they were sacked; they were bounced; they got the pink slip; they were given their walking papers; they were laid off; they were fired.

Of course, even those more straightforward words and phrases are themselves euphemisms. According to linguist Stuart Berg Flexner, “Fire has meant to dismiss from employment only since about 1885.”

It is probably derived from an old Anglo-Saxon tradition: the punishment for a miner caught stealing ore was to have his pick axes, sledges, and barrows burned to reinforce his banishment from the mine. That puts a whole different spin on fire.

The truth is, many of our everyday words began as euphemisms. Cemetery was originally a euphemism for graveyard: it comes from a Greek word meaning dormitory or sleeping place. Dis-ease was once a polite way to say that someone was ill. Now, that euphemism has become a mainstream word, a synonym for sickness.

According to Ralph Keyes, “Our ancestors were so worried about bears, they didn’t even want to utter the word. So, they came up replacement, bruin, meaning the brown one. And, over time that euphemism morphed into bear.”

Winston Churchill, known for rhetorical flourishes with more than a few exaggerations and inaccuracies, once replied to a critic with a brilliant euphemistic defense, “Perhaps we have been guilty of some terminological inexactitudes.”

Perhaps, indeed.

For WORLD Radio, I’m George Grant.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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