By Anatoly Liberman
A few weeks ago, I talked about euphemisms on Minnesota Public Radio. The comments were many and varied. Not unexpectedly, some callers also mentioned clichés, and I realized once again that in my resentment of unbridled political correctness, the overuse of buzzwords, and the ineradicable habit to suppress the truth by putting on it a coating of sugary euphemisms I am not alone.
The trouble with buzzwords and euphemisms is that they tend to lose their force and turn into inanities. A wonderful lady has been appointed president of a community college. This is the way she was characterized: “…an inclusive, transparent and collaborative leader with proven commitment to the success of all students.” I have no doubt she is, for she goes from one high post to another every two years, and such mobility needs a talent for collaboration and glass-like transparency. Yet I felt that something was missing in the recommender’s encomium, though I could not put my finger on it. Luckily, I read a review of his own performance and found that he is “a visionary leader who cares passionately for our students and works tirelessly on their behalf.” That’s it! The new president, I am sure, is also a visionary and cares passionately for the students at every college at which she was inclusive and transparent. How could those qualities be overlooked? (No one has plans any longer; we only “articulate visions”: a two-year vision, a five-year vision.) And the tireless leader, the author of the recommendation, is certainly a Renaissance man. Nowadays Leonardos are a dime a dozen.
Stale, flat, and unprofitable are our official speeches. They have become like excerpts from reviews used as ads. Here are two quotations from central newspapers (both deal with ballets): “Riveting and exhausting, fascinating and relentless, brilliant and tedious… a mesmerizing exploration of…”; “tackling arduous roles…with degrees of energy, scale, detailed nuance, and musical sophistication seldom found anywhere.” (Are they paid per epithet?) I once read a review of a thoroughly mediocre performance of The Swan Lake. “The best performance I have seen,” the reviewer assured us. I suspect that it was the first he had ever seen, so he must have been telling the truth. It is with praise as with standing ovations; in our climate of rapturous overstatement to applaud sitting looks like an offence.
Some euphemisms the listeners remembered from their family tradition are truly mesmerizing and captivating, especially for their detailed nuance. One of them is gentleman cow for “bull.” Others are old and well-known but still funny, such as I have to see a man about a dog (horse), that is, “excuse me, I have to go to a toilet.” (Toilet itself has fallen victim to countless replacements, from restroom to john.)
Euphemisms and taboo words are perennial. People were afraid to pronounce the name of the bear; hence our word bear (its etymological meaning is “brown”; the Indo-European word for “bear” is hidden in Engl. Ursa, from Latin, and Arctic, from Greek). One of the listeners wrote: “I hate passed away/passed on/passed. What’s wrong with dead?” Euphemisms for death and dead may have the same origin as those for bear (fear); it is better not to call a terrible thing by its real name, for it will hear, understand, and come. But today we are not so superstitious, so that our passed and passed away are mere signs of sham gentility. On the other hand, the rude phrase death tax has almost supplanted estate tax in everyday speech. You never know!
Then, naturally, embarrassing actions need sweet names. This is true not only of urinating and defecating but also of begging and extorting money. No one says pay up or get lost; people ask for “donations.” Aren’t service fee, seat fee, and convenience fee among the most precious verbal treasures we have? Conversely, we despise the filthy rich, usually out of envy. But wealth also commands respect. This is how the neutral term job creator became a synonym of “rich”: sounds business-like, even laudatory in our “trickle-down economy.” Doctors are among the main perpetrators of euphemisms, and we are happy to follow their usage. “Can blindness be the result of the surgery?” Answer: “The surgery may affect your vision.” “During the procedure you will experience slight discomfort.” It intends to mean “sharp, stabbing pain.” Sex has produced two tendencies. Our wonderful liberation allows everyone from early age to use the F-word. On the other hand, in polite conversation have intercourse is the limit. Most will prefer to say she sleeps with X, they made love on their first date, and the like.
It is a joy to watch verbal dances around old age. There is of course no need to call a spade a bloody shovel and say that old geezers have a 10% discount, but we feel queasy even about pronouncing the adjective old. “When I was pregnant with my third child, the doctor kept saying ‘Because of your advanced age…’.” Of course: not blind (only suffering from impaired vision), not too old but only of advanced age. Then the noble word seniors came up, and it is certainly here to stay. Seniority plays an important role in our fight for survival.
As one of the listeners put it: “What’s fun about a euphemism is what it tells us about a culture and about a user.” Indeed, but it is sometimes moderate fun. We are obsessed with offending someone, especially when it comes to ethnicity and gender. As a lecturer, I constantly dread “creating a hostile environment.” My audience may miss the content of the entire talk but will notice a poisoned sting in the most innocent joke. Everybody is supersensitive. Jew’s harp—shouldn’t we change the name, considering that the instrument has nothing to do with Jews? Because of the late connotation of spade (an ethnic slur), why not abolish the phrase call a spade a spade? On the Internet, I found a long essay that answers someone’s question about the phrase. Fortunately, it explains that in this case we have nothing to be ashamed of. Yet when you come to think of it, isn’t bloody shovel safer after all? Most of us still remember the uproar caused by the use of the adjective niggardly (which, of course, has nothing to do with the slur). The noun niggard seems to be of Scandinavian origin, but some people may feel hurt by its use.
In Minnesota, Asian carp has been replaced with invasive carp. Very wise. Why offend people of Asian descent? Not that they have been offended (though I may have missed something), but what if someone explains to them that the term is an outrage on their heritage? Our barbarous past has burdened us with Dutch uncle, French kiss, and many other shocking idioms. And don’t forget French fries ~ freedom fries. One of the listeners called my attention to such horrors as English sole (I will add: what if someone takes it for English soul?), German measles, Irish setter, Japanese beetle, Spanish fly, French letter, and Russian roulette—all highly inappropriate. I agree.
Let us work together on improving our language, and many thanks to those who participated in my talk show.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.