Before I picked up Ralph Keyes' latest book, Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, I admit, my understanding and appreciation of the role and breadth of euphemisms in our society and language was merely skin deep. As someone interested in the intricacies and nuances of language, I wanted to dig deeper. Keyes, an author with a prolific list of titles to his name and who has delved into topics including the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of language, surviving high school and the role of success and failure in our lives, once again delivers a rich exploration of a topic most of us have spent scant time even thinking about.
According to Keyes, "Euphemisms are the verbal equivalent of draping nude statues." Another way of saying we have spent centuries going to great lengths to find other ways of saying what we mean. Some of the areas that Keyes touches on where euphemisms have provided fertile ground are of course, sex, anatomy, money, death, and war. Keyes contends that euphemisms are a useful barometer of changing values and that there is no better way than to determine what concerns a culture at any given moment than by examining its verbal evasions. For example, when children of unmarried parents were referred to as `bastards' or `illegitimate children' it indicated society's level of discomfort with this issue, while today it would barely be considered worthy of a euphemism.
The book is a fascinating journey all the way from Shakespeare's ample usage of euphemisms in Elizabethan England to verbal dodges for all manner of bodily excretions and secretions, as one chapter is fittingly named. It was interesting to learn that a culture's level of discomfort with something has not always traveled a predictable trajectory. As for example, when discussing death. Two hundred years ago human beings spoke much more plainly about death, perhaps because it was all the more common. We have in fact as a culture gone from plain talking to excessive euphemizing when it comes to this subject with phrases such as `passed away', `gone home', and `gone to a better place' being commonly used instead of the more prosaic `died.'
The book wraps up with a look at why we euphemize in the first place. Keyes believes it is part of our innate ability to survive and evolve, and is emblematic of our `verbal creativity.' "After all, it's far harder to say what one doesn't mean than what one does mean. An ability to do so - to create euphemisms and use them effectively - demonstrates a high order of intellectual sophistication." Apparently, this phenomenon isn't going anywhere. Don't miss this wonderful and often hysterical compendium of linguistic legacy. Especially recommended for wordsmiths and writers looking for helpful hints on writing subtext.