Two books on euphemisms
John Ayto’s book Wobbly Bits and Other Euphemisms: Over 3,000 Ways to Avoid Speaking Your Mind and Robert Holder’s How Not To Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms are both revised editions. The former came out in 1993 under the title A Dictionary of Euphemisms; the latter has achieved its fourth edition after 30 years of being published under three imprints.
What the authors mean by euphemisms is clear enough from the titles of their books. They’re expressions that soften blunt truths by replacing them with indirect alternatives. You might think of them as oil in the wheels of society, allowing us to discuss, using circumlocutions, matters that are too hurtful or shaming to be spoken of directly and which often replace a negative concept with a positive one. Others regard them as genteelisms that cloak our thoughts as well as our speech. Hugh Rawson wrote in his Dictionary of Euphemisms (1981) that euphemisms are “outward and visible signs of our inward anxieties, conflicts, fears, and shames”. By our euphemisms you shall know us. He went on, “They cover up the facts of life — of sex and reproduction and excretion — which inevitably remind even the most refined people that they are made of clay, or worse.” Mr Holder is blunter with his comment that euphemism is “the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery, and deceit.”
Style writers rather disparage the users of euphemisms, even though they are so widespread that the issue should perhaps more properly concern social scientists rather than grammarians. Critics often point out that euphemisms are a form of code that is known to both speakers and listeners, and that such obfuscation is therefore unnecessary and silly. Why not, they ask, speak plainly and call a spade a spade? The problem is that almost every word has a fuzzy cloud of associations ringing it, sometimes unpalatable. To say that somebody has died is often too unsettling; much better to say he has passed on, been laid to rest, gone to meet his maker, or departed this life, a set of phrases that will cause readers of a certain age to think of, perhaps even begin to recite, Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch that mocked such evasive language.
A problem for the users of euphemisms is that when the code becomes well known, it starts to accrete the unpleasant associations of the term that it replaces; it must then be replaced by a fresh one. The classic example is the name that we give to the place in which one defecates. Down the centuries it has been known as a privy, water closet, lavatory, toilet, loo, restroom or washroom, among several other terms; it has the distinction of being the only concept in the whole language without a standard non-euphemistic alternative (there are many expressive slang terms, but they don’t count).
Attempts at creating new ones are sometimes far from successful: wardrobe malfunction for the breast-baring of Janet Jackson in 2004 was ridiculed for the inadequate attempt at spinning the situation that it was; the group of teachers in the UK in 2005 who suggested that children should not suffer failure but deferred success suffered similar opprobrium.
Like slang, euphemism is most often encountered in association with death, sex, alcohol and crime. The examples given by both authors suggest there’s a fine line between slang and euphemism, which they cross and recross. If you say somebody is rat-arsed or stoned, are you employing slang or euphemism? Robert Holder includes both, John Ayto only the latter. Both appear in the authoritative dictionaries of slang. Is the term Dutch auction, the method of selling by which the price is reduced until a buyer is found, truly a euphemism, as Robert Holder implies by including it? I’d argue it lies somewhere between jargon and standard English (historically, terms beginning Dutch have been insulting references rather than euphemisms). If a newspaper reports that a person has been gunned down, is it using a euphemism, as John Ayto asserts? Surely not. It evokes a powerful and potentially disturbing image that may be even more unsettling than the straightforward murder or shoot. If anything, it’s a dysphemism rather than a euphemism. This isn’t nit-nicking pedantry but a pointer to understanding that euphemisms are hard to define. The corollary is that it’s all too easy to use one without realising it.
The arrangement of the two books is different, reflecting the two fashionable ways to organise such data for easy reading. Robert Holder goes for a standard A-Z alphabetical arrangement linked with a set of themed lists. John Ayto’s method is the inverse: terms are introduced in themed chapters as part of a narrative, which is made accessible by an index. Holder’s work is the more comprehensive, though his net has been cast very wide.
[John Ayto, Wobbly Bits and Other Euphemisms, Second Edition; A & C Black, Sep. 2007; paperback, pp352; ISBN13: 978-0-7136-7840-6; ISBN10: 0-7136-7840-2; list price £9.99.]
[R W Holder, How Not To Say What You Mean, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, Oct. 2007; hardback, pp412; ISBN13: 978-0-19-920838-5; ISBN10: 0-19-920839-5; list price £9.99.