Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Euphemisms both amuse and disgust me. They amuse me because I can immediately cut through their dishonesty to understand what is really going on. They disgust me because anyone who writes euphemisms takes his reader for a gullible fool.

Cowards use euphemisms because they do not want to tell the truth about an event or situation. Rather than bluntly describe an event, euphemisms obscure truth with misleadingly neutral, unthreatening language. Many people resort to euphemisms when they are uncomfortable or embarrassed about the subject matter under discussion. In order to preserve their reputations—or their weak sensibilities—they craft their words to convey as little substance as possible. Quite simply, euphemistic speakers pervert language to feel better about themselves, not their listeners. Unless the listener has some tact, he may never actually know what the speaker is talking about. And that is unfortunate, because language controls power.

Consider these two examples. First, I saw a television advertisement yesterday about a “morning after” pill. The pitch line went something like this: “Don’t worry. Take our pill if you experience a birth control methodology failure.” A what? This sounds like some kind of ultra-technical engineering flaw, not the simple thing that actually happened: “Oh shit, honey; the condom broke.” Second, in the paper recently I read about an airliner that skidded off an icy runway then burst into flames. Passengers told stories about being violently tossed around the cabin and hearing the jet engines roar with terrifying intensity before they abandoned the plane. Those were visceral, honest recollections. But what did the airline say about the incident? “It is reported that Flight so-and-so exited the runway.” Exited? Sounds pretty calm and pleasant to me. Sounds like some guy just got up from his desk, sighed, stretched, farted, grabbed a cigarette and exited the building. What about the terror, flames, destruction and misery? I guess they did not want to bring that up.

I recount these two small examples to criticize those who take their readers for fools. I fault speakers who warp language in order to avoid difficult issues. But perhaps euphemisms reveal something more troublesome about our society. No one is ever really honest, especially when there is no compulsion to be honest. Instead, people say things in a way that feels best, even if it denies the truth. That disserves everyone, including the speaker. Worse, influential speakers in both public and private life have become extremely adept at euphemism. Euphemistic language becomes more and more subtle every year. And not everyone can decipher what these speakers actually mean.

When euphemism becomes the dominant means to communicate events or ideas, confusion, obscurity and dishonesty reign. Perhaps more disturbingly, a “communicative inequality” arises between speakers and listeners. The speaker knows what happened, but does not describe what happened in a way that others can truly grasp. The listener attempts to make sense of the speaker’s euphemism, but can never gain an honest insight. Listeners are left to interpret speakers, leading to suspicion, misunderstanding and mistrust.

Cynicism is a fine antidote to euphemism. When confronted by euphemism, a cynic immediately assumes that the speaker is detailing his words in just such a way as to benefit himself, whether financially, personally or simply to feel better. That allows him to get beyond meaningless jargon and fluff such as “birth control methodology failure” to see the speaker for who he really is: A self-interested advertiser so bent upon profit that he is unwilling to honestly describe the “uncomfortable” subject matter underlying his product. After all, if the speaker said: “When the condom breaks and you get accidentally inseminated, take our pill,” he might ruffle some sensitive feathers, and not as many people would buy his product. But he would more accurately describe reality than he would by saying: “Remedially apply our product in cases of birth control methodology failure.” In sum, euphemisms serve the speaker’s interests, not the listener’s. A cynical listener knows this, and he can translate euphemism into concise, descriptive language.

Still, penetrating euphemism takes some intuition, experience and mental nimbleness. Sadly, not everyone in our society has these capacities. For them, euphemism becomes a shadow-truth: Dishonesty becomes the new honesty; obscurity becomes the new clarity. It is all they hear. Euphemism has become immersive. When powerful speakers control discourse through language, they win every time. In this country, powerful speakers have already won; and we have no choice but to listen to them. All you need to do is turn on your television and wait no more than five minutes for the commercials to start.


Cassie Bishop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cassie Bishop said...

Absolutely! Estoy de acuerda contigo.
In fact, I have found myself struggling with a similar sense of inner conflict, thereby surrendering to my integrity and laying it out as it is before my ESL students at the institution through which I am employed.
I've wrestled with a thin layer of dis-ease as these 'social norms' of communication make guest appearances in my own classroom.
By the same token, I have endured varying degrees of inner resistance as in my endeavors to present those implicit, yet strictly observed barriers as an English teacher on various occassions now.
It is AS IF I must set aside time to facilitate an interactive dialogue with my ESL students to integrate the puritanical ways of communicating that so mandy adhere to here in the U.S. of A. into my own lessons.
While I can certainly present the modal auxiliary verbs as simple another set of variables in the equation, (thereby teaching students how to MODIFY the main verb in any given sentence with the MV of choice), it's not until 'helping verbs' such as SHOULD, MUST, COULD, or OUGHT TO truly stimulate a wave of reactions of shift one's own individual comfort zone that they fully impress themselves into a three dimensional, visceral understanding on each students' behalf.
In fact, I believe that my students need to take risks with the new language and try on the new terms out in the public sphere, (or "real-world" as some would call it!).
Yet the expression of self, (or clear misuse of a modal auxiliary verb), may very well serve as a means of alienation for an English language learner, thereby ostrasizing the him in his efforts to merely communicate with more flavor than he had been able to prior to sampling this new grammar clause!!!
As for euphemisms~~they take on a whole new sociocultural texture in any given interaction.
I believe one must be fully immersed in the primary discourse in order to embrace (or wholeheartedly reject), these proprieties in one's day to day life.
And yet, perhaps, I should take owndership of that slim sense of moral obligation I feel creeping up on me when I hear a sweet young man from Pakistan, Cuba, Iran, Algeria or Guatemala proclaim that "I is fucked tired" or " This book is a shit!") at the onset of a new lesson.
Perhaps it's really my responsibility (as a classroom facilitator/ culture broker) to present him with the more "socially acceptable" , grammatically correct," I am quite tired!" Or "I am a bit fatigued...." Would this be conjugated correctly?!! Given the ever evolving , socially adaptable nature of language, perhaps he could invent his own expression!! Who is to say what is correct and what is incorrect in my English classroom!!

SteveW said...

All words are euphemisms, because words are not the things that are being described. Communication is a transaction between the communicator and receiver, and not a transfer of pure information. The only thing you know after an instance of communication is that you received what the communicator intended, less any environmental filtering (bad phone connection, faded book pages), and less any filtering on your part (due to cultural differences, inattentiveness, preconceived notion, etc.). This is absolutely true, even if the communicator intends to convey only pure information unsullied by the preferences of the communicator.

Therefore, the best you can do to get at the "truth" of a communication is remove any of your own filtering to the extent you can. The euphemism (the cliched version your post focuses on) in this system tells you a great deal about the communication event - understanding why the euphemism occurred can be invaluable information. You have to reverse engineer the communicator intent to get the "true" information (follow the above system through) - a cliched euphemism may signal a communicator that is lazy, ashamed, unsure of your reaction, not paying any attention, reading something to you, not even aware of what they are communicating, etc etc.

In the great Poker game of life, the Euphemism is a Tell, in my opinion, and they can give you a lot of information about the communicator (and thus the communication event). Although I personally do not use them intentionally and would recommend all my friends not use them as well. I don't like to show others my cards in Poker, either.