Euphemisms (Words used to Avoid Offending People)

by Kate Woodford​​​​
euphemisms
We recently looked at the language that we use to describe lies and lying. One area of lying that we considered was ‘being slightly dishonest, or not speaking the complete truth’. One reason for not speaking the complete truth is to avoid saying something that might upset or offend people. Words and phrases that we use to avoid being offensive or upsetting are called euphemisms and there are a great number of them in the English language. Many euphemisms are known by native speakers of English, but are rarely used. Some are used to be intentionally humorous while others are very much part of normal, current English. Here, we focus on the last set – those euphemisms that genuinely are used by English speakers today to express things more gently or politely.

Not surprisingly, some of the most frequently heard euphemisms relate to death. A lot of people do not like to say that someone has died. It sounds too direct, perhaps even a bit shocking. They prefer instead to use the gentler phrasal verb pass away: I’m afraid her mum passed away yesterday. Another euphemistic way to say that someone has died is to say that you have lost someone: She lost her father only recently. Similarly, when people take a very sick or old pet to a veterinary surgeon in order to have it painlessly killed, they often say they have had the pet put to sleep: We’re all sad today, having had our beloved dog, Daisy, put to sleep. Continue reading “Euphemisms (Words used to Avoid Offending People)”

Words of Watergate

top secretBy Hugh Rawson

The fortieth anniversary of the Watergate scandal is well worth observing not only for its political results – an American president, Richard M. Nixon, was forced to resign and a number of his top aides went to jail – but for the way it enriched our political vocabulary. The scandal popularized such words and phrases as cover up, deep six, deep throat, dirty tricks, follow the money, inoperative, smoking gun, and stonewall. And it also offers lessons about the dangers of using deceptive language that remain relevant today.

The words of Watergate tended to be highly euphemistic. The president and his men tried at every step along the way to sugar coat criminal actions through the artful use of language. Thus, the incident that brought the scandal to life, the break-in on June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate  complex in Washington, D.C., was initially downplayed by Ron Ziegler, the president’s press secretary, as “a third-rate burglary attempt.” (Actually, this was the second third-rate burglary at the DNC office. The purpose of the June 17 break-in was to fix a telephone bug that had been installed there at the end of May.) Continue reading “Words of Watergate”

Fowl Talk for Thanksgiving

By Hugh Rawson

“Do you want white meat or dark meat?”

“Dark, please.”

“Would you like a drumstick?”

The key words in this snatch of dinner-table conversation – white meat, dark meat, and drumstick – are used so often when carving up a turkey at Thanksgiving that people tend to forget they are euphemisms: agreeable, round-about words employed in place of ones that are regarded as coarse or offensive. In this case, the “offensive” words are breast, thigh, and leg, words that people in polite society once avoided using, especially when women were present.

The avoidance of plain terms for bodily parts commonly is associated with the prudery of our Victorian ancestors though many of the evasions predate Her ascension to the throne in 1837.  To cite just a few examples from this euphemistically fertile period:  people started saying darn instead of damn, to employ dashes (d – – –) when writing the harsher word, to perspire instead of sweat, to wear unmentionables  instead of  trousers and breeches, to have stomachaches instead of bellyaches, to use nude rather than naked when referring to human figures in painting and sculpture, and to be laid to rest, not buried, in a cemetery (from the Greek word for “dormitory” or “sleeping place”) rather than in a graveyard. Continue reading “Fowl Talk for Thanksgiving”

Watching What You Eat

By Hugh Rawson       

“Man is what he eats,” according to the nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach – but may not want to know too much about the origin of what’s being eaten.

One of the most common ways of maintaining willful blindness is to translate English words for foods into French ones. In part, this is a tribute to the general admiration for that nation’s culinary expertise. But it also has the great advantage for English-speaking diners of blurring one’s mental image of what is being served up for their consumption.

Take filet mignon, for example. This  translates literally as “delicate” or “dainty slice.” In actuality, though, as pointed out by semanticist S. I. Hayakawa, “finest quality filet mignon” is just another way of saying “first-class piece of dead cow.”  Which tastes better to you? Continue reading “Watching What You Eat”