• U.S.

Nation: THE EUPHEMISM: TELLING IT LIKE IT ISN’T

9 minute read
TIME

MODERN American speech, while not always clear or correct or turned with much style, is supposed to be uncommonly frank. Witness the current explosion of four-letter words and the explicit discussion of sexual topics. In fact, gobbledygook and nice-Nellyism still extend as far as the ear can hear. Housewives on television may chat about their sex lives in terms that a decade ago would have made gynecologists blush; more often than not, these emancipated women still speak about their children’s “going to the potty.” Government spokesmen talk about “redeployment” of American troops; they mean withdrawal. When sociologists refer to blacks living in slums, they are likely to mumble about “nonwhites” in a “culturally deprived environment.” The CIA may never have used the expression “to terminate with extreme prejudice” when it wanted a spy rubbed out. But in the context of a war in which “pacification of the enemy infrastructure” is the military mode of reference to blasting the Viet Cong out of a village, the phrase sounded so plausible that millions readily accepted it as accurate.

The image of a generation blessed with a swinging, liberated language is largely an illusion. Despite its swaggering sexual candor, much contemporary speech still hides behind that traditional enemy of plain talk, the euphemism.

Necessary Evil

From a Greek word meaning “to use words of good omen,” euphemism is the substitution of a pleasant term for a blunt one—telling it like it isn’t. Euphemism has probably existed since the beginning of language. As long as there have been things of which men thought the less said the better, there have been better ways of saying less. In everyday conversation the euphemism is, at worst, a necessary evil; at its best, it is a handy verbal tool to avoid making enemies needlessly, or shocking friends. Language purists and the blunt-spoken may wince when a young woman at a party coyly asks for directions to “the powder room,” but to most people this kind of familiar euphemism is probably no more harmful or annoying than, say, a split infinitive.

On a larger scale, though, the persistent growth of euphemism in a language represents a danger to thought and action, since its fundamental intent is to deceive. As Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf has pointed out, the structure of a given language determines, in part, how the society that speaks it views reality. If “substandard housing” makes rotting slums appear more livable or inevitable to some people, then their view of American cities has been distorted and their ability to assess the significance of poverty has been reduced. Perhaps the most chilling example of euphemism’s destructive power took place in Hitler’s Germany. The wholesale corruption of the language under Nazism, notes Critic George Steiner, is symbolized by the phrase endgültige Lösung (final solution), which “came to signify the death of 6,000,000 human beings in gas ovens.”

Roses by Other Names

No one could argue that American English is under siege from linguistic falsehood, but euphemisms today have the nagging persistence of a headache. Despite the increasing use of nudity and sexual innuendo in advertising, Madison Avenue is still the great exponent of talking to “the average person of good upbringing”—as one TV executive has euphemistically described the ordinary American—in ways that won’t offend him. Although this is like fooling half the people none of the time, it has produced a handsome bouquet of roses by other names. Thus there is “facial-quality tissue” that is not intended for use on faces, and “rinses” or “tints” for women who might be unsettled to think they dye their hair. In the world of deodorants, people never sweat or smell; they simply “offend.” False teeth sound truer when known as “dentures.”

Admen and packagers, of course, are not the only euphemizers. Almost any way of earning a salary above the level of ditchdigging is known as a profession rather than a job. Janitors for several years have been elevated by image-conscious unions to the status of “custodians”; nowadays, a teen-age rock guitarist with three chords to his credit can class himself with Horowitz as a “recording artist.” Cadillac dealers refer to autos as “preowned” rather than “secondhand.” Government researchers concerned with old people call them “senior citizens.” Ads for bank credit cards and department stores refer to “convenient terms”—meaning 18% annual interest rates payable at the convenience of the creditor.

Jargon, the sublanguage peculiar to any trade, contributes to euphemism when its terms seep into general use. The stock market, for example, rarely “falls” in the words of Wall Street analysts. Instead it is discovered to be “easing” or found to have made a “technical correction” or “adjustment.” As one financial writer notes: “It never seems to ‘technically adjust’ upward.” The student New Left, which shares a taste for six-syllable words with Government bureaucracy, has concocted a collection of substitute terms for use in politics. To “liberate,” in the context of campus uproars, means to capture and occupy. Four people in agreement form a “coalition.” In addition to “participatory democracy,” which in practice is often a description of anarchy, the university radicals have half seriously given the world “anticipatory Communism,” which means to steal. The New Left, though, still has a long way to go before it can equal the euphemism-creating ability of Government officials. Who else but a Washington economist would invent the phrase “negative saver” to describe someone who spends more money than he makes?

A persistent source of modern euphemisms is the feeling, inspired by the prestige of science, that certain words contain implicit subjective judgments, and thus ought to be replaced with more “objective” terms. To speak of “morals” sounds both superior and arbitrary, as though the speaker were indirectly questioning those of the listener. By substituting “values,” the concept is miraculously turned into a condition, like humidity or mass, that can be safely measured from a distance. To call someone “poor,” in the modern way of thinking, is to speak pejoratively of his condition, while the substitution of “disadvantaged” or “underprivileged,” indicates that poverty wasn’t his fault. Indeed, writes Linguist Mario Pei in a new book called Words in Sheep’s Clothing (Hawthorn; $6.95), by using “underprivileged,” we are “made to feel that it is all our fault.” The modern reluctance to judge makes it more offensive than ever before to call a man a liar; thus there is a “credibility gap” instead. No up-to-date teacher would dare refer to a child as “stupid” or a “bad student”; the D+ student is invariably an “underachiever” or a “slow learner.”

Forbidden Words

The liberalization of language in regard to sex involves the use of perhaps a dozen words. The fact of their currency in what was once known as polite conversation raises some unanswered linguistic questions. Which, really, is the rose, and which the other name? Is “lovemaking” a euphemism for the four-letter word that describes copulation? Or is this blunt Anglo-Saxonism a dysphemism for making love? Are the old forbidden obscenities really the crude bedrock on which softer and shyer expressions have been built? Or are they simply coarser ways of expressing physical actions and parts of the human anatomy that are more accurately described in less explicit terms? It remains to be seen whether the so-called forbidden words will contribute anything to the honesty and openness of sexual discussion. Perhaps their real value lies in the acidic, expletive power to shock, which is inevitably diminished by overexposure. Perhaps the Victorians, who preferred these words unspoken and unprinted, will prove to have had a point after all.

For all their prudery, the Victorians were considerably more willing than modern men to discuss ideas—such as social distinctions, morality and death —that have become almost unmentionable. Nineteenth century gentlewomen whose daughters had “limbs” instead of suggestive “legs” did not find it necessary to call their maids “housekeepers,” nor did they bridle at referring to “upper” or “lower” classes within society. Rightly or wrongly, the Victorian could talk without embarrassment about “sin,” a word that today few but clerics use with frequency or ease. It is even becoming difficult to find a doctor, clergyman or undertaker (known as a “mortician”) who will admit that a man has died rather than “expired” or “passed away.” Death has not lost its sting; the words for it have.

Psychological Necessity

There is little if any hope that euphemisms will ever be excised from mankind’s endless struggle with words that, as T. S. Eliot lamented, bend, break and crack under pressure. For one thing, certain kinds of everyday euphemisms have proved their psychological necessity. The uncertain morale of an awkward teen-ager may be momentarily buoyed if he thinks of himself as being afflicted by facial “blemishes” rather than “pimples.” The label “For motion discomfort” that airlines place on paper containers undoubtedly helps the squeamish passenger keep control of his stomach in bumpy weather better than if they were called “vomit bags.” Other forms of self-deception may not be beneficial, but may still be emotionally necessary. A girl may tolerate herself more readily if she thinks of herself as a “swinger” rather than as promiscuous. Voyeurs can salve their guilt feelings when they buy tickets for certain “adult entertainments” on the ground that they are implicitly supporting “freedom of artistic expression.”

Lexicographer Bergen Evans of Northwestern University believes that euphemisms persist because “lying is an indispensable part of making life tolerable.” It is virtuous, but a bit beside the point, to contend that lies are deplorable. So they are; but they cannot be moralized or legislated away, any more than euphemisms can be. Verbal miasma, when it deliberately obscures truth, is an offense to reason. But the inclination to speak of certain things in uncertain terms is a reminder that there will always be areas of life that humanity considers too private, or too close to feelings of guilt, to speak about directly. Like stammers or tears, euphemisms will be created whenever men doubt, or fear, or do not know. The instinct is not wholly unhealthy; there is a measure of wisdom in the familiar saying that a man who calls a spade a spade is fit only to use one.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com