Like deodorant to disguise body odor, we use euphemisms to tone down the unpleasant nature of certain things we need to say. Commonly used euphemisms– “call of nature,” “pass gas,” “off-colour”–are not just to sanitize our conversations but also to neutralize negative connotations. As children, we all remember being reprimanded for not using the “right” words. Grown-ups – especially journalists, politicians, therapists, and those in advertising – often use euphemisms to put a “spin on things to make them sound good to their target audience.
Ralph Keyes’ Unmentionables: From Family Jewels to Friendly Fire – What We Say Instead of What We Mean documents both universally known euphemisms as well as obscure ones. To understand why we “mince words,” the author charts the use of euphemisms from the earliest recorded usage by early societies in Northern Europe, India, and Papua New Guinea to the Victorians’ propensity for euphemistic speech as well as the many contemporary examples we use in our daily lives. According to Keyes, the demand for euphemisms increases as society progresses and the meanings of some euphemisms have changed over time. The book goes on to talk about the various subjects that have attracted the most creative use of words. Body parts, substances secreted from the body, medical conditions, and even food have many associated euphemisms.
The most interesting and insightful section of the book dissects the motives and reasons we use euphemisms. In the author’s opinion, we use euphemistic words most frequently to shield ourselves and others from embarrassment. However, the author is quick to point out that as long as we think our anonymity is assured, we are prone to be less discreet with words. This is perhaps evident in online environments where people feel less compelled to mince their words. The other reason we euphemize is because humans are creative with language. We do so because we can. The complexities of our languages allow us to play around with words.
One need not be a linguist to read this book and appreciate the pliability of human language and our creativity in manipulating words. The lucid writing style of the author and the funny anecdotes help make this book informative and hilarious at the same time. It is interesting to note that “If we accept the pure logic of natural selection, a capacity to euphemize may have arisen and stuck around because of the adaptive advantage it gave human beings who were good at it. From this perspective, those who best demonstrated an ability to express themselves euphemistically gained an edge in the evolutionary sweepstakes. We are their heirs.”
Let’s not stop euphemizing.
Contributed by Shirley Lim