Euphemisms have been around at least since biblical times when to uncover a man’s foot was an idiom for making sexual advances. Today, as in the 10th century, people “sleep together”, and everyone knows the intention behind an invitation for a “nightcap”.
In classical times, “curled up”, “gone to sleep”, or “on a journey” were euphemisms for death. Now, we “pass away”, “pass on”, or “go to a better place”. Depending on the circumstances, we might even experience a “negative patient outcome.”
The human body and its functions are a rich source of euphemism. The English language has over 2,500 words for the body’s “private parts” and numerous phrases to describe natural functions; “pees and poos” are those unspeakable things we do when we “go to the bathroom.” And before it was polite to say that a woman was pregnant, or for a pregnant woman to proudly display her “condition”, she was “with child”, “in the family way”, or (my personal favourite dating from Victorian times) had “a bun in the oven”.
While some euphemisms help us navigate our way around embarrassing, painful or taboo subjects, others help us save face or elevate our position. Corporations that want to bolster their bottom line “downsize” and respected managers get “the golden handshake”. Someone who is unemployed is “between jobs” or “making a career change.” Secretaries and janitors have gone the way of the dinosaurs with “administrative assistants” and “sanitation engineers” stepping in to fill the void. Perhaps one day, “pedagogical mentors” will replace teachers.
Then there are those euphemisms that fool us into thinking we are clever and enlightened. “Monogam-ish”, a term coined by sex columnist Dan Savage, falls into this category. To be monogam-ish is to be mostly faithful to your partner, while embracing the occasional affair as a normal and healthy part of a committed relationship. The media, quick to pick up on any idea that is remotely trendy, encouraged debate on the validity of monogamy for our time and invited people to describe their experience of being monogam-ish. But if we are to be truthful, monogam-ish is nothing other than plain old-fashioned infidelity once we remove the smokescreen of language.
Equally dangerous are those mealy mouthed phrases that sugarcoat the unpalatable and disguise inconvenient truths. “Collateral damage” sanitizes the loss of human life, and “enhanced interrogation techniques” masks torture.
And what about “physician assisted dying”? At one time, we talked about “mercy killing”, and more recently, “assisted suicide”. But since we have no appetite for state sanctioned murder, we have found increasingly more complex ways to describe a questionable action. “Medical aid in dying” and “physician assisted dying” are easier to tolerate than terms that point towards killing. As with military terminology that camouflages the truth, these terms desensitize us to the reality of what we are doing.
Some euphemisms are like the emperor’s new clothes, swindling our conscience and obscuring the truth. So while indirect speech allows us to talk politely about awkward, embarrassing or painful subjects, sometimes it is, to quote George Orwell, designed to “make lies sound truthful, murder respectful and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.