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Book review: Euphemistically speaking

In 'Euphemania,' Ralph Keyes looks at euphemisms — how they came to be and why we use them. His earlier book looked at vintage phrases.

January 27, 2011|By Lori Kozlowski | Los Angeles Times

It's the way that we talk that fascinates Ralph Keyes. The words we choose to express the hurtful, the bawdy and what we perceive as shameful are of particular interest — because those are the subjects society feels the need to cover up.

We switch from "sex" to "sleeping together;" from "dead" to "pushing up daisies;" even "chicken breast" became "white meat" after Winston Churchill was once scolded for using it at a dinner party.

The follow-up to Keyes' first effort on linguistics — "I Love It When You Talk Retro," which examined vintage phrases like "drop a dime" and "double whammy" — "Euphemania" takes his passion for the oddities of language a bit further. He examines all of those replacement phrases and asks why we made the changes in the first place.

"Euphemisms," he writes, "have a bright side and a dark side." They are both our way of avoiding touchy topics that should be confronted and an effort to civilize everyday discourse. We have a tendency to give things a positive spin. Making things more rosy is, perhaps, best demonstrated by the term "life insurance," which is actually death insurance.

There are various reasons for our gentle brushing over of the cold, hard truth, Keyes says. Some are rooted in our comfort level with sensitive topics, our sense of privacy, the need for creativity with words subject to censorship; euphemisms can also be markers of social class.

While we sweep up sex, politics, affairs, murder and other forms of mayhem into catchy, sometimes memorable phrases that give our listeners the idea of what we are trying to say without our saying it directly, the author asks: Are we a society that can't utter some things at all? He also questions whether using more delicate phrases makes us nicer or somehow more genteel.

It's an old practice: We've been using euphemisms and alternative phrases since the days of Cicero in Rome. In fact, the word "euphemism" comes from the name of the nurse of the ancient Greek Muses — Eupheme, whose name literally means "good speaking."

As time passes, sometimes the kinder phrases we've created become less preferred; the "euphemism carousel" shows what was once old can become new again — or rather what was once bad can become good again (and vice versa). Keyes examines the idea of "blinding them with science" in that calling something by its formal scientific name somehow makes it more official and can sanitize the language in a clinical way. (Prophylactic, anyone?)

If a bit repetitive at times, "Euphemania" takes the reader through a whirlwind of historical moments and doesn't hold back when explaining curse words, bodily functions and how, generally, we like to keep things nice and tidy when we talk to each other.

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