Euphemistically Speaking

By Walker, Ruth | The Christian Science Monitor, April 19, 2011 | Go to article overview

Euphemistically Speaking


Walker, Ruth, The Christian Science Monitor


The impulse to find more refined ways to talking about unpleasant truths is a constant of the human experience; what changes over time are the topics deemed to need sugarcoating.

When two different colleagues suggest I should pay attention to a book, I tend to take notice. The book in question is "Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms," by Ralph Keyes.

It is a lighthearted, easy read, but not without erudition.

Sex, disease, death, and body parts all loom large here - quelle surprise. But Keyes puts it all into a larger context. He quotes University of Chicago linguist Joseph Williams: "Euphemism is such a pervasive human phenomenon, so deeply woven into virtually every known culture, that one is tempted to claim that every human has been pre-programmed to find ways to talk about tabooed subjects."

For prehistoric peoples who believed that to mention directly something they feared would tend to bring it forth, it made sense to refer to bears as "honey-eaters," Keyes notes.

He goes into current brain research to explain, "Evidence ... suggests that cursing may be a form of protolanguage that has more in common with a dog's bark than, say, Plato's Republic." On the other hand, he says, "Evasive speech apparently originates in the newer parts of our brain where complex thought originates. While words that we utter spontaneously when provoked are more likely to emerge from the uncensored limbic brain, given an opportunity to ruminate we turn to the cortex and choose from among its vast supply of euphemisms. Since the brain and a capacity to speak have evolved jointly, it may even be that creating euphemisms contributed to our ability to think."

It all makes me feel somewhat better about what Keyes calls "the euphemizing instinct.

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