FAIR OF SPEECH: The Uses of Euphemism. Edited by D.J. Enright. Oxford University Press. 222 pp. $15.95.
EUPHEMISMS COME in many forms, all of them with the same purpose: to put a pretty face on that which we consider ugly. A mother, embarrassed for her child (and herself) by the clinical names for bodily functions, asks that child if he has done "Number One." A politician, reluctant to bear the onus of sponsoring a tax increase, speaks to his constituents of "revenue enhancements." A mortician, equally reluctant to offend the delicate sensibilities of his customers, speaks to them of the "deceased" who has "passed away." A general, attempting to disguise a strategy of conquest by force, characterizes what his troops are doing as "pacification." A minister, counseling a married couple but hesitant to identify the source of their difficulties, asks about their problems with "intimacy."
More than anyplace else, euphemisms crop up in the bedroom, the graveyard and the bathroom -- this last being itself a euphemism, though for what no one seems really to be sure, since every word for the place where people relieve themselves seems to be a euphemism. This being the case, euphemisms have gotten a bad name, especially among people who think that one of life's obligations is to be "realistic" and "honest" about things that disturb, distress, offend or embarrass us. It is thought in these circles to be a sign of weakness, if not indeed cowardice, to speak reticently in public about sex, death, urination and other business that, however uncomfortable it may make us, is inescapably part of life.
But the truth about euphemisms is quite another matter. The use of pretty or evasive words to disguise distasteful behavior in politics or war is certainly offensive, but in ordinary daily life it is an absolute necessity. That is a subject addressed, though often obliquely, by several of the contributors to this highly uneven collection of essays devoted, in the words of its editor, to the consideration of distinctions "between the acceptable and the unacceptable, between that (euphemism) which obeys the truth of the heart and that which tells a harmful or horrible lie." With a near unanimity that may seem surprising in a group of scholars and academics, the 15 contributors to this volume agree with Jeremy Lewis, writing about the uses of euphemism in the workplace:
"As we all know, humankind cannot bear very much reality, and only the most robust can survive on a diet of raw truths and untenderized plain speaking. Awkward customers who insist on calling a spade a spade and stoutly refuse to make the right noises for the wrong reasons, or for no reasons at all, are invaluable as stimulants or purgatives, but can only be taken in small doses: kindliness and cowardice ensure that, for the rest of us, a mealy-mouthed reticence prevails and that, in public at least, we pick our ways through a familiar swamp of evasions, ambiguities, white lies, hypocrisies and euphemisms, different in detail but not in essence from those we deride or condemn on the lips of others. At home, or with our close friends, we can usually say what we think; in the curious world of the office, so intimate and yet so alien, circumlocution thrives and the euphemism -- so irritating, so entertaining, so touching, and so endearingly transparent -- comes into its own."
Politicians and generals may use euphemisms to lie to us, but amongst ourselves we use them to keep the peace. Had D.J. Enright bothered to enlist the likes of Judith Martin or Quentin Crisp among his contributors, readers of Fair of Speech would find it more clearly stated that euphemisms are utterly essential to civilized behavior, to the development and perpetuation of what we call "manners." We maintain the fragile bonds of society through the widespread circulation not of truths but of lies -- polite, thoughtful, considerate, self-protective lies that permit us to disguise the candor of our thoughts in a genteel fog of obfuscation. Rather than speak offensively, we choose not to speak at all; rather than state an opinion or fact that our listeners would find objectionable, we state it obliquely through euphemism.
THE PRACTICE, as several of the essays herein point out, is as old as civilized society and as widespread as the air through which our euphemisms float. If there was a difficult reality, the ancient Greeks had a euphemistic word for it and so too did the Romans; the Victorians did not invent euphemisms, they merely perfected them. In the lives of children euphemisms have always been ubiquitous and sometimes, as Catherine Storr discovered after taking a survey, with lastingly confusing results: "One of my correspondents, to whom I am indebted for the expression for urination 'to do chim,' writes that in his nursery days defecating was called 'to do pain,' and that now, fifty years later, he becomes vaguely uncomfortable when addressing anyone called Payne or Paine. Another informant who used the euphemism 'tiddles' for urinating was confused to discover that Tiddles was the name of his aunt's cat; and I found it equally hard to learn that 'doing your duty,' our family expression for defecating, had other connotations. Nelson's message to his men sounded to me for years like a very public after-breakfast call."
These euphemisms, however contrived, had no especially damaging effects. In the worlds of politics and war, though, they often do -- especially in American politics, corrupted as it has become in recent years by the weasel words of television advertising and high-powered public relations. Thus it is a great disappointment that Fair of Speech, though it acknowledges their existence, scarcely meets these questions head-on. Its discussion of euphemisms in politics is almost entirely limited to Britain (as is too much else in a book being simultaneously published in England and the United States), and almost entirely ignores the practice in America, where it is endemic. One essayist mentions in passing that the Central Intelligence Agency has had an "assassination unit called the Health Alteration Committee," but there is no really thorough or systematic discussion of the ways in which Newspeak has come to dominate American politics.
A further difficulty with the collection is that too many contributors are too eager to sweep too much into the dustbin of euphemism. Many euphemisms are not euphemisms at all but synonyms, words that writers and speakers come up with not to disguise the truth but to give variety to what they say. Many other euphemisms are used with deliberate jocularity or irony, as only John Gross seems to recognize when he comments, "To say that someone has popped off or pegged out may be no more than a rueful acknowledgement that death is an everyday occurrence, and that we must not allow the fact to depress us unduly." Call it euphemism or call it irony, it remains that such speech is one of the ways we make the painful acceptable, the difficult manageable. As Robert M. Adams puts it:
"Euphemisms not only soften disagreeable qualities of the outside world, they may be used to smooth asperities of our own egotistical judgments -- thereby keeping us out of jail and on bearable terms with our like-them-or-not associates. The abuse of the process is weaseling, waffling and something very close to straight lying; its proper use lies in fostering that mutual consideration which underlies civilized conduct and conversation."