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Scholarly Essays Offer the Last Word in Euphemisms

July 10, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Fair of Speech, edited by D. J. Enright (Oxford: $15.95)

I have not even begun to write this review and already, according to one of the contributors to "Fair of Speech," I have committed euphemism. Up above there, in that line of gnat-size type listing the price; $15.95 indeed. As everyone knows, that is only a way of making $16 seem less. It is publishing's hallowed equivalent of the guinea fee charged by British barristers and brain surgeons. Just try paying their 20-guinea bills with anything less than 21 pounds.

The guinea (21 shillings instead of the pound's 20) is a numismatic euphemism. The 16 players in D. J. Enright's linguistic croquet game provide euphemistic examples from a dizzy variety of human functions and activities--war, excretion, politics, law, sex, dying and so on--leaving the subject, if not always the reader, quite unexhausted.

'Deodorant of Language'

Euphemism, the use of a word to sweeten reality, is everywhere. It is "the deodorant of language," according to Robert M. Adams, a UCLA scholar. It is "the opposite of poetry," according to Peter Mullen, the fire-breathing Vicar of Tockworth. All words could be considered euphemisms in some sense, Enright ventures, since they are softer or lighter than the objects they name.

Clearly, there have been euphemisms as long as there has been language. There was the Greek word for the Furies: Eumenides, or the Kindly Ones. There is the curious fact that the word for bear used in the relatively bear-free Mediterranean latitudes ( ursa , ourse , oso ) refers to the beast itself; whereas in bear-gnawed Northern Europe, it refers vaguely to a brown animal (bear and Baer ).

The excretory functions have always provided a rich harvest of euphemisms. Diane Johnson cites, with a possibly apocryphal but convincing note written by a mother to her son's school, the facility provided by the verb "to be." "Willie can't come to school because he hasn't been. I've given him something to make him go, and when he's been, he'll come."

Children's Phrases

Catherine Storr, a doctor, has collected a list of children's phrases on the subject, among them: "I want the square root of one." This is a euphemism on the older euphemism of No. 1. Euphemisms come to stand too closely for the thing itself and need to be replaced. Toilet or the English lavatory--meaning, respectively, where you arrange your makeup and where you wash--are now blunted; there is restroom or, in England again, the geography. Best of all is the French locution meaning "where the King goes on foot."

The French, as Richard Cobb's splendid essay shows, enliven the cloying effect of euphemisms with a dash of wit. Death can be "the flat-nosed one" and one of the words for guillotine used to be "the little window." Among the ways to shoot someone is to "revolverize" him. "The English (the Redcoats) have landed," French schoolgirls used to say, referring to their periods.

Enright is one of the grand old men of British literary criticism. That means a long and full life of assorted mischief-making. The croquet-game comparison I used earlier needs qualifying: It is Wonderland croquet, where the mallets are flamingoes and everyone starts and stops just when he or she likes.

Prevalent in Public Life

Enright delivers a rambling preface, containing among other things a cogent thought that where euphemism is quite vanished from literature (Joyce through Mailer), it has never been so prevalent in public life (Thank you for not smoking; surgical strike; safety-net; senior citizen). Then he potters off, leaving his guests to their own devices.

Some contributors conscientiously examine the euphemisms of their assigned specialty; others wander away. Jeremy Lewis' "In the Office" chapter is essentially a light sociology of office life. Joseph Epstein recycles some witty things he has written before about sex in literature.

Digression has its uses, though. One of the best essays is the Rev. Mullen's assault on the various texts that have been issued to replace the King James version of the Bible. Essentially, he is talking modernism more than euphemism, but he is splendid on the subject. His particular target is the scholarly efforts of the Revised Standard Version, which seemed to him like sheer pedantry.

"Those phantoms of the lapidary style," as he calls its editors, substitute "the people are perturbed" for "let the people tremble." Instead of "arise, take up thy bed and walk," it is "take up your pallet and go home." And Mullen thunders: "Because we must on no account be allowed to imagine that the poor paralytic slunk off carrying his four-poster."

And then there is Robert Nisbet, the political philosopher. He is not really interested in euphemisms; he is interested in hypocrisy. For a couple of millennia, he writes, theoreticians have been cloaking the state's essential function--war-making or the threat of it--with such notions as divine right, the social contract, the vox populi , the state as provider. With an impartial hand, he skewers Lenin and George Will on the same lance.

"More than 2,000 years of political euphemism and panegyric, and with what result?" he demands. "The state, born of war and nourished by war has become, all euphemism notwithstanding, more powerful, more inquisitorial of human lives than at any time in its history."

It is like driving a bulldozer through Enright's garden party, but in Wonderland Croquet, who cares?

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