Archive for Tag: euphemisms

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

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?
A: Duh!

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?

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

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?