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Jack Smith

Separating the euphemisms from the gobbledygook, and judging a judge who holds both in contempt

May 21, 1986|JACK SMITH

Pasadena Superior Court Judge Gilbert C. Alston is besieged by women's groups and by other jurists for dismissing charges against a man accused of raping and sodomizing a prostitute, on the grounds that the case was just "a breach of contract between a whore and a trick."

Women are understandably outraged at the judge's implication that prostitutes are not protected by the laws against rape.

I am reminded of a famous 19th-Century case in which a drunk stumbling down a city sidewalk was tripped by a hole, and fell and broke an arm. He sued the city for damages, but lost. In reversing this verdict on appeal the California Supreme Court ruled that "a drunk is just as entitled to a safe street as any other man, and is more in need of it."

I would say that a prostitute is just as much entitled to protection from rape as any other woman, and may surely be more in need of it.

Though I deplore his ruling, I must concede that Judge Alston's choice of words in making it was interesting as well as provocative.

He explained: "I'm always being attacked for my use of words that are perceived as wrong. I'm blunt. I deliberately avoid being tactful in certain situations. One of the problems in our society is that we're so wedded to euphemism that you can't call a janitor a janitor anymore. You have to call him a building inspector. I don't believe in spoon-feeding the truth."

I agree with the judge that we live in an era when the sometimes harsh realities of life are softened by euphemism, although he is a step ahead of me in observing that janitors are now called building inspectors. The last I heard, they were called custodians. Inevitably, though, as soon as it is obvious that custodians are janitors, a new euphemism will be found to deny or obscure that reality.

A euphemism, according to Webster's New World Dictionary, is "the use of a word or phrase that is less expressive or less direct but considered less distasteful, less offensive, etc., than another. . . ."

I see nothing wrong in euphemisms that merely seek to ease or inflate people's feelings about their lot. If a garbage collector wants to call himself a sanitary engineer, why should we object? But what, then, does a sanitary engineer call himself?

As the sainted H. W. Fowler noted in "Modern English Usage," "Euphemism is a will o' the wisp, forever eluding pursuit; each new word becomes in turn as explicit as its predecessors and has to be replaced."

Thus, a truly descriptive and useful word like handicapped , which was an excellent euphemism for crippled , becomes too explicit itself, and is replaced by such idiocies as differently abled . So are retarded children called "exceptional."

Euphemisms are also commonly used by bureaucracies to disguise or conceal their intentions: Thus, we have police action for war , pacify for destroy , and relocate for exterminate .

We seem to have risen above the prudish delicacies of the 19th Century, in which legs were called limbs, undergarments were called unmentionables, pregnant women were said to be in an interesting condition, and a chicken breast was called white meat.

It is said, in Clifton Fadiman's "Little Brown Book of Anecdotes," that during a visit to the United States Winston Churchill attended a buffet luncheon at which cold fried chicken was served. Returning for a second helping, he asked, "May I have some breast?"

"Mr. Churchill," replied his hostess, "in this country we ask for white meat or dark meat."

Churchill apologized, but the next morning the hostess received an orchid from her guest of honor with this message: "I would be much obliged if you would pin this on your white meat."

Jack Findlater, who collects euphemisms, asserts that in the past decade they have proliferated, flooding into the language from the bureaucracy, the armed forces, business, the professions and the media.

He notes that verbalize has taken over for speak ; conceptualize for think ; parameters for boundaries ; traumatized for injured ; eventuate for happen ; shower activity for rain ; experienced cars for used cars ; dentures for false teeth ; and senior citizens for old people .

More of those are examples of gobbledygook than of euphemisms, it seems to me, being pompous and inexact substitutes for ordinary terms, like parameters for boundaries , whose purpose is not to be less offensive, but more impressive.

But dentures , senior citizens and experienced cars are certainly euphemisms. Just the other day I saw an ad in the paper for "pre-owned Mercedes," the message being that no matter how old a Mercedes might be, it could never be anything so ordinary as a "used car."

Findlater also argues that deprived , underprivileged , disadvantaged and culturally disadvantaged all mean poor; and that backward country , underdeveloped country , emerging country , developing country and Third World also all mean poor.

As for the blunt word used by Judge Alston for the plaintiff in his case, he had a choice from the largest and richest group of synonyms in the English language. J. I. Rodale's Synonym Finder lists no fewer than 64 synonyms for prostitute, and I'm sure there are more.

Evidently Judge Alston thought he was using the basic words in calling the plaintiff a whore and the defendant a trick.

I think he wasn't.

He had before him simply a man and a woman.

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