“My husband has gone bear hunting,” she says.
She knows some very pleasant secrets.
After the secrets, we drink aquavit and I recite a poem …
—Paul Willems, Flight of the Archbishop (translated by Edward Gauvin)
Even within such meagre context, the nature of Countess Kausala’s secrets is evident, despite the euphemism. Fiction is a purveyor supreme of such delicate phrasings precisely because they hide the explicit on the page, so that they may reveal a particular (peculiar?) explicitness at the pleasure of the reader’s imagination. In an erotic context, they’re the equivalent of a veil that gets lifted not by the hand but by the mind, and they’re often the difference between seedy and sublime.
In my previous post, I discussed elegant variation—the laboured avoidance of repetition according to Fowler’s—which itself is a useful euphemism employed playfully, but with the more usual, real-world negative connotation.
Euphemising has been around for longer than Photoshop, so it’s also had longer to earn its infamy.
Indeed, as Fowler’s shows us in this entry from 1968, History has clapped along to a rich linguistic variety show: biological states are known to parade powdered, masked, bedecked in feathers, while societal scourges dress up as sophisticated harlequins.
euphemism means (the use of) a mild or vague or periphrastic expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable truth.
Next, blame the Victorians for disguising the burlesque of life:
The heyday of euphemism in England was the mid-Victorian era, when the dead were the departed, or no longer living, pregnant woman were in an interesting condition, novelists wrote d——d for damned and G—d for God, bowdlerized editions of Shakespeare and Gibbon were put into the hands of the young and trousers were nether garments, or even, jocosely but significantly, unmentionables or inexpressibles.
Then the French get a mention (of course):
We are less mealy-mouthed now, though still more given to euphemisms than our Continental neighbours; the notice Commit no nuisance or Decency Forbids was even in our own day sometimes used for the injunction put more bluntly in France as Défense d’uriner. But euphemism is a will-o’-the-wisp for ever eluding pursuit; each new word becomes in turn as explicit as its predecessors and has to be replaced.
As does the loo:
The most notorious example of the working of this law is that which has given us such a plethora of names for the same thing as jakes, privy, latrine, water-closet, w.c., lavatory, loo, convenience, ladies, gents, toilet, powder-room, cloaks, and so on, endlessly.
Is this what they’ll say about Fifty Shades of Grey:
There are of course—or were before the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover—some words, now a small and rapidly diminishing number, too tainted by bawdy and ribaldry to be useable, and for these polite synonyms must be found.
Don’t forget it’s possible to alleviate problems overnight:
In the present century euphemism has been employed 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.
Finally, some examples from the same article. (The formatting is mine.)
the poor = lower income brackets or the under-privileged classes
poor-law relief = national assistance
backward and troublesome children = maladjusted
ladies once termed mistresses (itself a euphemism for the earlier concubines and paramours) are now unmarried wives
insanity = mental disorder
lunatic asylums = mental hospitals
every kind of unpleasant event that might call for action by the government is discreetly referred to as an emergency.
gaolers = prison officers
commercial travellers = sales representatives
ratcatchers = rodent operators
dustmen = refuse collectors or street orderlies
boarding houses = guest houses
many butchers call themselves purveyors of meat and at least one a meat technologist
hairdressers = tonsorial artists
undertakers = funeral furnishers or directors
New euphemisms have cropped up in the past fifty years. What’s your favourite?
As Fowler’s felt compelled to add the following entry after euphemism, perhaps I should do to:
euphuism. The word is often ignorantly used for euphemism with which it is entirely unconnected. [It] means affected artificiality of style, indulgence in antithesis and simile and conceits, subtly refined choice of words, preciosity.
You are unlikely to ever need this word. Although, it is best to be equipped with whetted wit and many a forged phrase, in case some day you come across a familiar form but of unfamiliar name, and you can duly pronounce, without delay, to the silence and awe of lesser minds: I have thee finally, oh euphuistic euphemism!
(Actually, it’s not worth it.)
This post is part of a series about the second (1968) edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler, as revised by Sir Ernest Gowers.
- Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance: On density of style, and where to find advice on style.
- Every Chance of Going Wrong: On various writing pitfalls.
- It Is True That Words Are Cheap: On synonymia, tautology, circumlocution, pleonasm, meaningless words, and pairs of commonly confused words.
- Does It Come off?: On verbless sentences.
- Elegant Variation: Editing out repeating words, as guided by Fowler’s advice.
- Euphemism and Euphuism