A Rose by Any Other Name

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

In a recent column Tom and Ray Magliozzi, my favorite car guys, said of a certain unethical mechanic that he had earned a place on their “fecal roster.” I chuckled all morning over that felicitous rephrasing of “sh*t list,” and even sent it to a couple of friends. I am calling that a euphemism, and I would like to talk about euphemism this week, along with its evil twin, dysphemism. We seem incapable of calling a spade a spade. Instead we will give it Latinate flair by calling it an excavating implement, or we will call it, say, a mud mucker (though I can’t imagine why we’d want to castigate an innocent little shovel).

“Euphemism” is from the Greek meaning good omen or good sound. We resort to euphemism when the “real word,” however determined, is deemed too hurtful or too embarrassing or too…whatever. Some euphemisms are well intentioned (passed away, mentally challenged), others duplicitous (collateral damage, revenue enhancement) others just silly (sanitation engineer, sex worker). Death and sex (or more broadly, many bodily functions) have spawned hundreds of euphemisms. Some say the euphemisms surrounding death stem from the fact that to mention death directly would be to somehow invite it. This may be the case in primitive societies but I think the reason is simpler than that: to talk directly about death and dying is just too blunt, too much of an assault on the bereaveds’ sensibilities. So although it is not really that brutal, instead of saying that Uncle George is dead or that he died this morning, we say—in the language of obituaries—that he has passed away, that Jesus has called him home, that he has gone to his reward, and so forth. Notice that these expressions also endorse the life to come, i.e., heaven, the ultimate anodyne. Only in the obit from hell would you find such dysphemisms as kicked the bucket, bought the farm, croaked, bit the dust, and so forth. (A dysphemism is a term that is deliberately more harsh, more crude than the “real word.”)

We spend a good part of our lives urinating, defecating, and copulating. These terms we can use pretty much without embarrassment, but when was the last time a friend said, “Excuse me a moment, I have to defecate”? Thought so. Instead we go round about, talking about needing the john, going to the bathroom (and doing just what while we’re in there?), seeing a man about a dog, and so forth. Or we give it a cutesy, childish spin, saying that we have to go potty when a cruder sort would say that he has to take a dump. Or we will take an earthy term like f**king (yes, the coy asterisk is ever helpful, a punctuational euphemism!), clearly a dysphemism, and turn it into frigging or freaking, which is not really euphemistic but…less dysphemistic? Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

How do you make a euphemism? Well, using Latin based words instead Anglo-Saxon—“excavating instrument” instead of spade; “sanitary engineer” instead of garbage man; “excrement” or “feces” instead of shit (those asterisks get old, ok?)—that’s one way. Or just by making things vague. Mother would be horrified to know that you are a prostitute, but “sex worker”? Gee, that might be anything. Maybe you pass out condoms at the free clinic. The euphemism gives you just enough cover until she figures it out.

Why do we use dysphemisms? What could be served by that? One idea—think of the death dysphemisms—is that we are striking back, being cavalier about death. To say someone “croaked” is to say, “Screw* you, Death; I’m going to laugh in your face.” But I suspect that it is more to show how world wise or world weary we are. Not only can we handle the truth, but we can handle its most bitter expression. The person who says “bought the farm” is decidedly not the person who says “passed away.” Each is making a statement, advertising an attitude. I just recalled another very creative use of dysphemisms: conservatives in this country brilliantly reframed the political debate when they began referring not to the “estate tax” but to the “death tax.”

Driving home from the store this afternoon I saw one of our ubiquitous cell phone towers. Even at a distance, I knew it was a cell phone tower even though it was disguised as an evergreen tree, much like the one you see on Oregon license plates. And I realized that that was a kind of physical euphemism. Everyone rails against cell phone towers as ugly impositions on the landscape. But when the cell phone companies try to disguise them, to “euphemize” them as evergreens, some people get even more incensed! Well, so it is with euphemisms: we use them as our own barometers of feeling. Do we like the straight and bracing truth, or do we like it sugar- coated? Or do we like it with a side of gall and wormwood? Whatever we choose, we know that we are willingly fooling ourselves. Euphemisms and dysphemisms say at least as much about us as about the world they purport to describe.

*“Screw” has become pretty much housebroken. When I was a lad you thought twice about using it in polite company. But now “screw you” is, I think, borderline acceptable, and “screw up” will bring a nary a blush to any cheek.

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