English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIX
EUPHEMISM AND HYPERBOLE

There remain for consideration a number of other features of language that have been productive of change of meaning. Two of these speech tendencies, unlike in themselves, have been remarkably alike in their effect on the meaning of words. The two tendencies in question are euphemism and hyperbole.

In order to appreciate the force of the euphemistic tendency one will do well to recall the source of the word etymology. The first part of the word is the Greek etumon, which meant 'true meaning.' The Greeks, as the word etumon shows, believed that there was a direct and essential relation between a word and its meaning. In other words, there was a direct relation between a thing and its name. This idea of the Greeks was widely prevalent elsewhere. Many are the stories in the world's literature in which magic power is attributed to certain words. Every one will recall the open sesame of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves". Several English words bear evidence to the belief in the magic potency of words. The word spell in Old English meant a 'saying' or 'narrative,' a meaning surviving in gospel (O. E. gōd, 'good' + spell, 'message'). The word, however, meant also a set of words with magic powers, a meaning surviving in such modern phrases as under a spell, spellbound, etc. The word charm, also (Latin carmen), bears evidence to the belief in the magic potency of words when sung. The same belief in the quality of sung words is attested by enchantment (Lat. cantus, 'song').

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