What's in a Word | All Blogs


Delicately speaking

By Debra Dobbins

It’s the bare truth: What makes the Frank & Earnest comic strip funny today is the euphemism “birthday suit.” Fortunately, not all of one character’s expansive birthday suit is on display.

A euphemism is a polite or positive way of expressing something. Its first two letters, eu, mean good or well.

As a child, I was brainwashed with euphemisms. I was taught to say, “It’s snowin’ down South” if a friend’s slip was showing. I thought it was daring to say pregnant instead of “in the family way.” Someone with cancer had “the big C.” When someone died, he or she “passed away.” (Our pastor always gave a eulogy.)

In some ways, though, we used plain language. My parents bought used cars, never “pre-owned vehicles.” The man who cleaned my high school was a janitor, not a “custodian,” but everyone still respected him. Students did not get “held back.” They flunked a grade.

Euphemisms can be polite, but they can also deceive. Governments can use them to conceal reality, such as when a war is termed a “police action.” In Hitler’s Germany the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" became horrifying doublespeak for the torture and murder of millions of Jews. Their deaths could not remotely be considered euthanasia. Many died—in their birthday suits--in gas chambers.

The English poet Alexander Pope noted that for every virtue there is a vice. While euphemisms can sound humorous and/or virtuous, it is important to understand what they really mean.
 

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