Friday, August 8, 2008
Okay, I know you’re not supposed to do something like this, but let’s eavesdrop on a conversation:
A: I hear your brother’s in a correctional facility. Is that true?
B: Yes, I’m sad to say.
A: What happened?
B: It was all a misunderstanding. He worked for a large clothing retailer. He was let go after he was caught with pilfered goods. My brother didn’t know what they were. The guy who gave them to him said they’d fallen off the back of a truck.
A: Oh, I see. Hmm … And how’s your younger brother doing?
B: He’s between jobs right now. He’s returned to the nest, so that’s good for him financially, but he’s got payments to make on a pre-owned car he bought recently.
Don’t you love the way English can soften reality, or help us avoid directly facing ugly facts, or help us to be more tactful? In an earlier entry also entitled “A Rose by Any Other Name,” we started delving into the wonderful world of euphemisms, and that’s what we’ll continue to do right now.
Speaking of which, how many euphemisms can you find in that conversation? Go ahead, count them. Let’s see what you get. I’ll wait . . .
All done? So how many did you find? I found nine. And here they are:
1. I hear Translation: Somebody – I won’t say who – told me that . . .
2. correctional facility Translation: jail
3. It was all a misunderstanding. Translation: My brother really screwed up.
4. He was let go. Translation: He was fired.
5. pilfered Translation: stolen
6. They’d fallen off the back of a truck. Translation: They’d been stolen.
7. between jobs Translation: unemployed
8. has returned to the nest Translation: living at home with momma and poppa again
9. a pre-owned car Translation: a used car
It says a lot about a culture that uses euphemisms in such a way. Sometimes euphemisms soften a not-so-pleasant truth, as we’ve seen in this conversation; at other times, they can be used to show respect or deference to a group of people. Just look at all the euphemisms English has created ― and I’m sorry to be so blunt ― for old people: the elders, the elderly, the aged, people in their golden years, retired people, mature people, and the ever popular seniors or senior citizens. Why is it, I ask you, that the word old has such a negative connotation? It’s not inherent in the language, is it? It’s a cultural thing, of course. But that’s the whole point: Euphemisms are completely culture-bound.
Sometimes we can see two totally different ways that segments of our population view something by the euphemisms they choose. For example, what about the dead? We can be reverent when talking about somebody who’s dead, or we can be flippant. I wonder which group has the sillier ways of telling you that somebody’s dead.
So let’s be reverent for a moment.
A: Did you hear about poor old Mr. Mertz?
B: No, what?
A: He’s passed/passed away/passed on/passed over/deceased/expired/gone to meet his maker/resting in peace/in a better place/crossed over/defunct/departed/
gone/been taken/succumbed/no longer with us/given up the ghost.
B: Oh. Do you mean he’s dead?
A: Yes, poor thing.
And now let’s be a little flippant.
A: Hear about Billy-Bob?
B: No, what?
A: He’s pushing up the daisies/bit the dust/bought the farm/cashed in his chips/
checked out/kicked the bucket.
B: Oh. Ya mean he’s dead?
I suppose both ways of imparting such news are equally effective in the long run. I just think it’s fascinating that we’d rather opt for one of those euphemisms rather than just come right out and say the poor guy croaked . . . er, died. And then we have this quaint way of letting you know that somebody’s dead by saying the late so-and-so. How bizarre is that? Late? Late for what?? If Mr. Mertz’s time was up, how can we say he’s the late Mr. Mertz? That’s a head scratcher, if you ask me!
Of course my favorite area for euphemisms deals with that always popular sport, sex! In a culture that still has trouble dealing with this topic, euphemisms abound. Just look at some of the ways we can talk about having sex: have carnal knowledge of/have (intimate) relations (with)/make love (with/to)/have an affair (with)/sleep with/sleep together (with)/go to bed with/make whoopee/there was some hanky panky/fooling around/monkey business/playing around. And the beat goes on!
Yes, euphemisms definitely serve a variety of purposes. One thing’s for sure, they certainly enliven the language! But on a more serious note, we also use euphemisms to deal with delicate subjects, especially politically correct ones such as handicaps. People who are sensitive to the handicapped have a lot of credit coming to them, especially those people who insist that proper terminology be used when discussing different kinds of handicaps and the individuals who deal with them. If you’d like to see something very interesting and meaningful, the Life Span Institute of the University of Kansas has set up an online site where you can familiarize yourself with the current terminology that should and should not be used when talking about handicaps. Visit the Life Span Institute and see what I mean. It’s a great way to teach ELL students this very important vocabulary. On that Web site, just click on “Appropriate Terminology.”
And if you’ve got any favorite euphemisms that haven’t been covered here and you’d like to share them with us, please leave a comment for all of us to see. Now that I’m feeling a bit knackered, I think I’ll go to the bedroom to rest ― even though I still think it should be called the restroom! I mean, after all, isn’t that what we do there? Hmm?