“Heck on wheels,” proclaims a recent newspaper headline for a roller derby. Heck? I mean, what next? Heck’s Angels? War is Heck? Heck hath no fury?
One wonders how modern society with its bandying about of the F word and its graphic depiction of sex in theater and film could be so squeamish about language.
By definition, euphemism means substituting a favorable expression for a more accurate or possibly offensive one. Literally, it means “fair of speech.” Thus, there are no longer any old people, only senior citizens; the poor have become the underprivileged; drug addicts are the chemically dependent, and people do not die, they pass away. Or go to their reward. And nobody’s fired — they’re downsized, or let go.
How happy Thomas Bowdler would’ve been with all of this. After years spent in medicine, travel, and philanthropy, and some study of the education of children, Bowdler set out in 1818 to purify the works of Shakespeare, striking from them those words and expressions that cannot with propriety be read aloud in the family. The word Bowdlerize was first used in print in 1836 and became a term of abuse. The Victorian age in which he lived was the heyday of euphemism, a time when pregnant women were described as being in an interesting condition; trousers were referred to as nether garments, and it was even suggested, perhaps jocularly, that piano legs be covered up lest viewing them might give rise to lascivious thoughts.
Today, according to that arbiter of language Fowler’s Modern English Usage, euphemism is used less in finding discreet terms for what is indelicate than as a protective device for governments and as a token of a new approach to psychological and sociological problems. Fowler says it is notorious in totalitarian countries where assassination and aggression can be made to look respectable by calling them liquidation and liberation. George Orwell, whose writing was clear and spare, had no time for euphemism. He suggested that political language consists largely of question begging and cloudiness. For example: “defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets — this is called pacification.”
Theodore M. Bernstein, in his book “The Careful Writer,” notes that if a writer needs further guidance about the use of euphemisms, let it be noted that it tends to be the less intelligent and less educated who are most addicted to these linguistic evasions. These are the people who refer to every man as a gentleman — as did the reporter who referred to the Norwegian “gentleman” who killed 77 people.
Optimistically, however, Bernstein believes that such genteel-isms are passing. But not quite yet. We might still be exhorted not to let our dog go to the bathroom in the street, but human ablutions are also euphemized as in making a pit stop, spending a penny and answering the call of nature.
And euphemism still infests the fields of real estate and sports. For a example, a house described as a “compact, bijou residence in an up and coming area” might very well be a matchbox-sized dwelling too small to accommodate your flat screen TV and located in an insalubrious area, possibly even a slum. And in sports, a player described as “having some off field issues in the past but is now showing some maturity” might well mean that he was habitually drunk and or drug addicted, arrested, and close to being dropped from the team, or fired.
Even so, the process of expurgation and euphemism flourishes in ever more creative ways. For example, au naturel is a phrase that covers up nudity — so to speak; prisons are now known as correction facilities; and politicians, denied the right to call their fellows liars, may say only that they are guilty of being economical with the truth. Similarly, British newspapers are not allowed to describe a politician in that country as drunk, but only as appearing tired and emotional.
Oh, well, euphemisms have clearly not passed away. But what the heck.