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Finding Comfort in Euphemisms When Words Make Us Feel Uneasy

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: There's a new book called "Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms."

RS: Author Ralph Keyes defines euphemisms as comfort words that we use in place of words that make us feel uncomfortable.

RALPH KEYES: "Today we no longer feel any strong need to say 'gad' or 'golly' instead of God. And yet euphemisms reflect changing values. We're much more likely today to make euphemisms out of words for money or money-related matters, for war, for death.

"If we aren't comfortable saying we 'slaughter' meat, we 'butcher' meat, we can always say we 'process it.' I was recently at a park in California and at the entrance to the park it said 'Feral pig depredation in process.'"

AA: "Huh?"

Finding Comfort in Euphemisms When Words Make Us Feel Uneasy
Finding Comfort in Euphemisms When Words Make Us Feel Uneasy

RALPH KEYES: "Depredation. Yeah, huh, exactly."

AA: "Feral pig -- oh, I get it."

RALPH KEYES: "A lot of pigs are going to die. But we're not comfortable saying 'die.' If you walk through old graveyards, and I've done this, sometimes even the old, old tombstones would talk about 'Worms are eating his corpse' and 'Soon, you shall be like me.' Nowadays we wouldn't dream of using words like those. You know, people 'pass,' they 'pass on,' they 'went over,' you know, they were 'called home.'"

AA: Well, interestingly, one thing I learned from your book is what 'consumption' is. I'd been hearing that word all my life and never really knew what it was. Why don't you tell us what consumption is?"

RALPH KEYES: "Well, this one is personal to me because my great-grandmother, Myrtie Lacey, died of consumption. And it was only quite a few years later that I learned that consumption is an old-time euphemism for tuberculosis. Tuberculosis used to be the biggest killer, and so we came up with lots of euphemisms for that disease, the most common one being 'consumption' because tuberculosis 'consumed' the body."

RS: "Do euphemisms change over time? In your research did you find that?"

RALPH KEYES: "Oh, yes. We're always clever about finding new ways to express ourselves. One thing I saw and included in the book was the word 'canoe.' [It] showed up as an old-time euphemism for sex. Well, I've since learned that 'going canoeing' is the full euphemism.

"Now, why is that a euphemism? Well, because in a time when couples were supposed to be chaperoned when they were out together, they quickly discovered that if they went out in a canoe, there wasn't room for a third person. And today we say 'hook up.'"

AA: "Well, you know, and on a somewhat related topic, lately there was all this controversy about the new increased security measures at the airports in the US, and this new phrase 'Don't touch my junk' has become -- "

RALPH KEYES: "Isn't that amazing? Where did 'junk' come from?"

AA: "And, of course, we're talking about 'privates' Laughter

RALPH KEYES: "Privates, exactly. Thank you, Avi."

RS "'Private parts.'"

AA: "'Private parts,' to use the technical term."


RS: "You talk about how our values are changing. How do you see through euphemisms that our lives are changing?"

RALPH KEYES: "Well, you can tell what issues we're concerned about most. The oldest known euphemism is bear. 'Bear' is a derivation of 'bruin,' which means 'the brown one.' And some of our earliest ancestors in northern Europe were so afraid of this large, ferocious animal that they wouldn't even say its actual name. Bear has now become, of course, the standard word for this animal. We no longer know what the original word was."

AA: Today's euphemisms suggest to Ralph Keyes that people are likely to more afraid of bear markets than actual bears.

RALPH KEYES: "You don't even use the word money. You say 'assets,' 'liquid assets.' You don't 'borrow' money, you 'leverage.' You don't 'pay off' loans, you 'deleverage.' You know, markets don't 'fall,' there's an 'equity retreat' or a 'market correction.'"

AA: "'Equity' itself -- these home equity loans, the way that people were borrowing against their homes. They used to be called second mortgages."

RALPH KEYES: "Exactly. Which is a much more clear and ominous term -- a 'second mortgage.' It's like a second ball and chain, which is why it got changed to 'home equity loans' by the lending industry."

RS: "Just one last question, is focused on our audience of speakers of English as a foreign language. What would you recommend, what advice would you give for them studying euphemisms?"

RALPH KEYES: "Well, I'd listen very carefully for the ways people use euphemisms, because they do all the time, and you can get in trouble by either not understanding the euphemisms that are being used or using the wrong ones.

"And incidentally, this can happen even among English speakers. In the US, for example, 'top-shelf' refers to first rate [best quality]. In the UK, 'top-shelf' refers to pornography, because it's kept on a top shelf."

RS: Ralph Keyes is an author, speaker and teacher. His newest book is called "Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms." And that's WORDMASTER for this week.

AA: Archives are at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.