Friday, July 11, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name

Whenever I’ve taught an Intro to Linguistics course, one of the things I’ve discussed with my students is the fact that you can’t separate language from culture, that a language is an integral part of the culture of the people who speak it, and that it reflects that culture. In other words, you can’t learn a language in a vacuum.

Which brings me to the topic of euphemisms. Nothing is more telling about a culture than the euphemisms that culture has come up with in its language. Of course, this phenomenon can go a long way to driving ESOL and EFL students nuts. First, they’ve got the arduous task of trying to learn several terms for the same thing, and then they’ve got the daunting problem of learning when some of these terms are appropriate to use and when they aren’t. And, if all of that isn’t tough enough, they’ve got to learn which are considered nice and which are considered nasty. This is some job!

I suppose we all have out favorite euphemisms or favorite categories in which we can find lots of euphemisms to have fun with. I know I certainly do! Two categories that have always been nearest and dearest to my heart are the bathroom (itself a euphemism), including items related to it, and obesity. I like to focus, however, on the nice euphemisms, not the nasty ones.

English speakers have a “thing” about the bathroom. Americans, for example, just love their bathrooms. They beautify them with ceramic tile on the walls as well as on the floors. They install the nicest sinks and faucets and bath tubs or shower stalls. They go all out. And they make these cherished rooms sweet smelling so that they and their guests will walk in, inhale, and sigh with approval as they exhale. But don’t you dare call it what it is, the toilet. No, no! We can’t be so direct and low class about a room where such goings-on occur that we even find this topic difficult to discuss with a doctor, if need be. So English has come up with a bounty of euphemisms for that room which you go to “when nature calls” (also a euphemism): the bathroom, the gents’, the head, the john, the ladies’, the ladies’ room, the lavatory, the little boys’ room, the little girls’ room, the loo, the men’s room, the powder room, the privy, the restroom, the WC (water closet). And, of course, for those in less modern settings, the latrine and the ever-popular outhouse.

And what do we say when someone’s in the middle of doing his business in this famous room? “He’s indisposed.” “She’s on the throne.” Don’t you just love it? I remember the first time I heard my plumber refer to the toilet as “the commode.” How nice! How delicate a term! It’s just as delicate as the term that television advertisers had to come up with when they finally crossed the barrier and were able to hawk bathroom items in their commercials. They couldn’t call it toilet paper. Ugh! How crass! So now we watch commercials for “bathroom tissue.” It just rolls off the tongue (no pun intended): “bathroom tissue.”

Here’s a cute story about the word restroom. One of my students told me this tale about when he first arrived in the US. There he was in his first American airport after a very, very long flight during which he had had trouble relaxing and trying to sleep. He picked up his bags and then noticed a sign that said “Restrooms.” “How wonderful!” he thought to himself. “Americans think of everything! They even have a place where tired passengers can rest before they continue their travels.” So he went over to the one marked “men,” went in, and you can imagine the shock on his face as he realized it wasn’t exactly a place to “rest.” That was his introduction to English euphemisms!

Obesity, as I said, is my other favorite category. I just love the euphemisms we’ve created to protect the feelings of fat people. They’re fat. I’m fat. Lots of Americans are just plain fat. But we’ve got to be psychologically protected from that unpleasant reality, so people who want to be polite and sensitive to our feelings have come up with the following terms, which can even be designated as unisex, male, and female terms. Unisex: big, big boned, corpulent, heavy, heavyset, large, overweight, plump; female: buxom, full figured, Rubenesque, voluptuous, zaftig; male: husky, portly, stout. (I think I’ll be “big boned” today. Yeah, I like that: “big boned.”)

Euphemisms do provide a very important service for a language. They reflect how important speakers of a language consider one topic or another, and show us how those speakers deal with or don’t deal with that topic in their culture. The subject of euphemisms is almost inexhaustible, so I’ll have lots more to say about them at another time.

How about you? Do you have any favorite euphemisms, or are there any that you scoff at? I’d like to know what they are, so drop me a line, okay?


Blogger Sam Simian said...

That’s just wrong, gosh darn it!

Dear Grammar Guy,

I’m not sure what you mean by “nasty euphemisms.” Do you mean euphemisms for R-rated or X-rated topics like making whoopee, or do you mean so-called four-letter-words? I ask because I didn’t think that the latter were called euphemisms. And that’s what I wanted to know: what are “bad words” or things that make things more offensive called — diseuphemisms?

Also, I can appreciate the fact that certain topics are just “ooshy,” so we use euphemisms to discuss them. I understand that, “Where’s the powder room, Betty? I’m afraid nature’s calling,” is probably preferable to, “Where’s the cr _ _ per, Betty? I have to p _ _ s like a racehorse.” (The latter might put one off one’s cucumber sandwiches.) However, I, also, think that some euphemisms distance us too much from their underlying reality. For the best examples of some of these, I’ll let the digital George Carlin speak because his analysis of such things was a breath of fresh air, and, of course, he recently kicked the bu — sorry, passed away.

(WARNING: In this You Tube video, Mr. Carlin uses colorful language.)


July 12, 2008 2:27 PM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

Hi, Sam!

When I said "nasty euphemisms," I was talking tongue in cheek. Of course, euphemisms are supposed to be only positive, polite, nice ways of saying sometimes distasteful things. I'm trying to come up with a term for the opposite of a euphemism, but right now I'm having a mental bloc. If anybody can think of one, please let us know. I have to say, though, that I like your coined term "diseuphemism," Sam! :)

I agree with your observation about euphemisms sometimes distancing us too much from reality, but that's human nature, I suppose.

Thanks for your comments, Sam. I always enjoy hearing from you!

By the way, "ooshy"? That's a first. I've never heard that term before. Where did you get that from?


July 12, 2008 3:16 PM  
Blogger Sam Simian said...

Bad Words vs. Bad topics

Dear Grammar Guy,

I don’t know if I made up “ooshy,” or if I heard it somewhere — perhaps from George Carlin? But once upon a time, my vocabulary used to be more colorful than it is now. I can still curse like a sailor (or, at least, a member of the coast guard) when I need to. Curse words are wonderfully cathartic in a way that euphemisms aren’t. However, I’ve found that silly euphemisms are a lot more fun when some comment is called for, but your head isn’t ready to explode in anger.

My silly euphemisms tend to run toward the scatological: for example, poopies, caca de poo poo, and big smelly boom booms. Nevertheless, these are not terms that usually make people uncomfortable. (Although they do often make people think I’m screwy.) “Ooshy,” on the other hand, is my term (?) for things that make you take a metaphorical step back so that you don’t toss your cookies. And, in my experience, this is more a function of the topics than the vocabulary that’s used to discuss them.

For example, in keeping with your comments on the connection between culture and language, what happens in the bathroom is, often, not a taboo subject in Japan. When I was an EFL teacher in Japan, I remember Japanese female coworkers using fairly neutral terms to describe their recent bowel movements (and related items) to one another in great detail: for example, constipation, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. This seemed as natural to them as discussing the weather, but it made me a little green around the gills — that is, I thought it was a little “ooshy.”

Are you familiar with other things that are fine to discuss in country X but taboo in country Y?


July 12, 2008 5:40 PM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

We don't even need to compare country X with country Y, Sam; all we need to do is compare America 2008 with, let's say, America 1958.

It's amazing how fast American culture has changed in so short a time. In America 1958 you would never have discussed topics like a woman's period, single mothers, gays, or erectile dysfunction openly. I mean, never! Yet in America 2008, not only are these topics discussed among people, but they're also openly discussed and/or advertised on television and radio.

As a result of this change in cultural attitudes about the appropriateness of what can or can't be discussed openly, our lexicon has been added to. If you had said terms like erectile dysfunction or single mother back in America 1958, people would probably have squinted at you and wondered what you were talking about. And gay would only have meant "happy."

Those are all pretty good examples of how language and culture are bound together - and there's nothing ooshy about that! : )

Thanks for sharing more of your thoughts and experiences with language, Sam.

July 12, 2008 6:18 PM  
Blogger Sam Simian said...

I’m not gay — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but …

Dear Grammar Guy,

You mentioned the word “gay.” I’ve just completed the most minimal of research into the etymology of the word “gay” as it relates to homosexuality. These were the first two sites listed in a Google search:
The Wikipedia site discusses the changes in connotation and denotation that have taken place — especially those that occurred in the 20th century. While “gay” probably would not be considered a euphemism in American English today (would it?), would you agree that “gay” seems to have gone from a euphemism for homosexuality (and other examples of sexual behavior that didn’t follow sexual mores of the “dominant culture”) to a relatively neutral term for homosexuality?

And without listing the whole panorama of outré sexual behavior that one can find on the Internet, would you say that “vanilla” (or “vanilla sex”) may be, or become, a “reverse euphemism”: a term used to describe something that is NOT harsh, blunt, or offensive but implies knowledge of acts or words that many would consider harsh, blunt, or offensive? (I think that I just coined “reverse euphemism.” Please tell me if you have a better term.) For definitions of “vanilla sex,” see:


July 13, 2008 1:30 PM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

I would still consider gay a euphemism. It tends to be a word that creates less of a response -- negative or otherwise -- than homosexual does. You yourself point that out by describing it as a "neutral term" these days. And, after all, that's one reason we have euphemisms.

And as for a term like vanilla sex, I don't think that's really a euphemism. I see it more as just a current synonym for something like "traditional sex," i.e., sex that isn't "kinky" in any way. Some people would actually consider this term pejorative since it implies nothing too exciting or creative.


July 13, 2008 2:37 PM  

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