The perils of euphemism

Created 9 Sep 2009 • Last modified 14 Aug 2012

I protest the dishonesty of euphemism and the harm euphemism can do to the language.

Look, I can see the point of minced oaths; I use those all the time. The only way "phooey" differs from the F-word is that it isn't intrinsically offensive. There is no meaningful way in which "phooey" is less direct, frank, or understandable than its more vulgar counterpart. But when you say "pleasures himself" instead of "masturbates", or "being intimate" instead of "having sex", you're trying to smuggle a taboo topic past the addressee's gut reactions. It's as if you got on a stage and then, instead of making your speech, threw copies of the script at the audience and ran behind the curtains. Euphemism is, at heart, dishonest—and you owe it to your listeners to be honest.

Indeed, if you look at the euphemisms we use, you'll find that when they aren't vague, they're literally false. When one person "sleeps with" another, surely the last thing either partner is doing is sleeping. When a kitten is "put to sleep", it isn't going to wake up anytime soon. Unlike ordinary (non-euphemistic) figures of speech that aren't literally true, like "in a pickle", these expressions sound halfway believable, giving them a deceitful quality. Worse yet are cases of genuine ambiguity. People "making love" are probably having sex, but they might just be kissing, while for people who have "hooked up", all bets are off. But the most prominent and irritating feature of euphemism is unnecessary length and complexity. "Took his own life" is a very roundabout way of saying "killed himself", yet has none of the agreeable humor of the dyphemistic "blew himself to bits".

In some cases, euphemism has even impoverished the language. The OED's entry for the use of "pleasure" as a transitive verb documents how it began life meaning "to give pleasure to; to please, to gratify", but now usually just means "to gratify sexually; to have sexual intercourse with". Apparently, the more emotionally charged euphemistic sense crowded out the general sense, and so we have been robbed of a handy synonym of "please" and are left with another lame euphemism.

Speaking of the word "lame", it's only fair that I add that, occasionally, euphemisms redeem themselves. Simply by being used to refer to a delicate topic so many times, a euphemism can lose its deceitful character and become an ordinary or even a vulgar term. Sometimes this leads to the coinage of a new euphemism, and so on indefinitely, in a process called the euphemism treadmill. (Wikipedia suggests this is actually a linguistic manifestation of Gresham's law.) But the good part is that the ex-euphemisms often remain in the language with none of their former dishonesty. "Crippled", for instance, is now a wonderfully expressive way to describe something which has been drastically weakened. And "bathroom" no longer has even the pretense of referring to baths. Its role in our euphemism repertoire is now occupied by the literally correct but infinitely vague "facilities".

By the way, "person with albinism" is a ridiculous term. Next, I suppose, they'll be calling me "differently pigmented" or "oculocutaneously challenged". Political correctness is laudable, but circumlocution and euphemism aren't, and the ends don't justify the means. (Then again, being very inconspicuously albino, I've never been taunted or discriminated against for albinism per se. Perhaps if I had been I'd see the word "albino" differently.)