Euphemisms

I thought I would start adding a new category to my posts; euphemisms and or colloquialisms.

Ever wonder where some of the weird expressions people have come from?  I like to watch NCIS and the character Zeva on that show is Israeli. She often messes up terribly when she tries to use American expressions and it is pretty amusing.  I thought it would be kinda neat to find out where some of these expressions come from and why we use them.  If you have one you think I should post or one you would like to know the origin of leave me a note.

Even the word “Euphemism” is a euphemism. It is Greek for fair of speech. It basically means using prettier words to express a blunt or harsh thought, or a round about way of saying something.

One of the most common uses of euphemism is the words we use for God. In the Old Testament , there is a commandment against using God’s name in vain.  So people developed ways to get around this commandment. For instance, Gad, the Almighty, J.C.

People used to believe that words had power to bring about good or evil. And eventually this developed into the modern practice of using something pleasant sounding to express something with more unpleasant connotation.

We have words for old people like elderly, or senior citizen. Death is another unpleasant thought so we say, dearly departed, asleep, gone home, no longer with us, etc.

I won’t divert too far into the sexual euphemisms people use, but hedging around the edge of them, just think of all of the ways we describe a woman being pregnant or menstruating.  In a family way, being in a condition, a mother-to-be, expecting; having a visitor or a visit from a friend, having her period, having her time of the month.

There  are many that have to do with bodily functions such as using the washroom, going to the bathroom.

Toilets themselves have about a million different euphemisms: Water Closet/WC, gingerbread office, necessary place, outhouse, small room, woodshed, throne room, House of Lords, head, siege hole, ladies room/mens room, powder room, little girl’s or boy’s room, privy/privacy, seat of ease, ease room, rest room, comfort station, washroom, lavatory, bathroom, latrine.

I’m not sure where the names Jakes and John being used came from. But it seems like they must have been unpopular guys.

How about ones for things like physical appearance or being crippled? plain looking, handicapped/disabled.

There are ones that disguise what we have to say about other people, such as calling a housewife a domestic engineer, because some people think there is a negative connotation to being a housewife.  Or calling someone who is stingy, tight fisted or frugal.

Sometimes people change words around to make euphemisms, such as those for God. (Gad or gosh). (Cripes, Chriminey, crikey). Or the childish game of pig Latin. Or using words from other languages that don’t sound as bad to us such as lingerie for underwear, or derrière for your butt. There is no evidence that arse or ass was a bad word until people became puritanical about body parts. People used to have limbs because it wasn’t nice to have legs.

As I said I won’t stray too much into sexual expressions, but it is interesting to note that some of them sound dirtier than what they are avoiding saying,

“I’d like to rotate her tires.”

“I’d like to check out his broad band access.”

There are over 800 expressions for sex/copulation, 1000 for penis, 1200 for vagina, and 2000 for a wanton woman according to Steven Pinker in his “The Stuff of Thought:Language As A Window Into Human Nature, 2007. He is quoting an earlier book by Allan and Burridge, Euphemism and Dysphemism, 1991. (By the way, a dysphemism is a word meant to shock instead of spare the listener or speaker)

The word brothel comes from an Old English word for “going to ruin” or “degeneration”. It is also closely related to the French word bordel and after the Norman invasion, many English words were influenced by the nobles speaking Norman French.

Madam is a strange word. It was originally used to describe an older woman of aristocratic breeding. It came to be used for the women running brothels during the Civil War. This happened due to two curious southern traditions. Sometimes the southern people had such good manners that they refused to call these women what they were. But there is another souther tradition of giving backhanded compliments and sarcastic compliments.  Calling a woman a “Madam” could be a way of pointing out to her that she was anything but respectable. Similar to the expression, “Y’all come back, ya, here?” To the uninitiated that sounds like an invitation, but to someone familiar with southern customs, it often means, “Go, away.” Because obviously it is necessary to leave in order to come back some other time. It’s a really polite way of saying get lost.

Euphemisms are not always about manners and are not always funny. I found the following disturbing account in a book about the Nazi Holocaust.

Keep in mind that this is a bureaucratic description of the amount of Jewish occupants that could be crammed into a train car.

“The van’s load is usually nine per square yard. In Saurer vehicles, which are very spacious, maximum use of space is impossible, not because of any possible overload, but because loading to full capacity would affect the vehicle stability. So reduction of the load space seems necessary. It must absolutely be reduced by a yard, instead of trying to solve the problem, as hitherto, by reducing the number of pieces loaded. Besides, this extends the operating time, as the empty void must also be filled with carbon monoxide. On the other hand, if the load space is reduced, and the vehicle is packed solid, the operating time can be considerably shortened. The manufacturers told us during a discussion that reducing the size of the van’s rear would throw it badly off balance. The front axle, they claim, would be overloaded. In fact, the balance is automatically restored, because the merchandise aboard displays during the operation a natural tendency to rush to the rear doors, and is mainly found lying there at the end of the operation. So the front axle is not overloaded.

The lighting must be better protected than now. The lamps must be enclosed in a steel grid to prevent their being damaged. Lights could be eliminated, since they apparently are never used. However, it has been observed that when the doors are shut, the load always presses hard against them [against the doors] as soon as the darkness sets in. This is because the load naturally rushes towards the light when darkness sets in which makes closing the doors difficult. Also, because of the alarming nature of darkness,screaming always occurs when the doors are closed. It would therefore be useful to light the lamps before and during the first moments of the operation.

For easy cleaning of the vehicle, there must be a sealed drain in the middle of the floor. The drainage hole’s cover,eight to twelve inches in diameter, would be equipped with a slanting trap, so that fluid liquids can drain off during the operation. During cleaning, the drain can sometimes be used to evacuate large pieces of dirt.

The aforementioned technical changes are to be made to vehicles in service only when they come in for repairs. As for the ten vehicles ordered from Saurer, they must be equipped with all innovations and changes shown by use and experience to be necessary.”

SOURCE: Memorandum written on 5 June 1942 by Willy Just, a welder in the RSHA transport department. Cited in Claude Lanzmann, Shoah — An Oral History of the Holocaust (Pantheon Books, 1985), pp. 1035.

There used to be strange euphemisms in newspaper articles. There was an article about a dead woman being found in a suitcase in a London railway in the 1930’s. The woman’s arms and legs had been removed, but her body was described as having “not been interfered with”. This was because she had not been sexually assaulted.

As you can see, euphemisms sometimes dilute and distort reality. Sometimes they mislead you into thinking things are not as bad as they really are.

Modern society uses euphemism to be “Politically Correct”. People are afraid of offending minorities and protected classes

I’ve always loved the comedian George Carlin.  He had a love for the English language that I can relate to. The following is a quote from one of his stand-up routines about euphemisms.

I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protest themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse. I’ll give you an example of that. There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to it’s absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap. In the first world war, that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by and the second world war came along and very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. Shell shock! Battle fatigue. Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, were up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car. Then of course, came the war in Viet Nam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ll bet you if we’d of still been calling it shell shock, some of those Viet Nam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll betcha. I’ll betcha.

But. But, it didn’t happen, and one of the reasons. One of the reasons is because we were using that soft language. That language that takes the life out of life. And it is a function of time. It does keep getting worse. I’ll give you another example. Sometime during my life. Sometime during my life, toilet paper became bathroom tissue. I wasn’t notified of this. No one asked me if I agreed with it. It just happened. Toilet paper became bathroom tissue. Sneakers became running shoes. False teeth became dental appliances. Medicine became medication. Information became directory assistance. The dump became the landfill. Car crashes became automobile accidents. Partly cloudy became partly sunny. Motels became motor lodges. House trailers became mobile homes. Used cars became previously owned transportation. Room service became guest-room dining. And constipation became occasional irregularity. When I was a little kid, if I got sick they wanted me to go to the hospital and see a doctor. Now they want me to go to a health maintenance organization…or a wellness center to consult a health care delivery professional. Poor people used to live in slums. Now the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities. And they’re broke! They’re broke! They don’t have a negative cash-flow position. They’re fucking broke! Cause a lot of them were fired. You know, fired. management wanted to curtail redundancies in the human resources area, so many people are no longer viable members of the workforce.

Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It’s as simple as that. The CIA doesn’t kill anybody anymore, they neutralize people…or they depopulate the area. The government doesn’t lie, it engages in disinformation. The pentagon actually measures nuclear radiation in something they call sunshine units. Israeli murderers are called commandos. Arab commandos are called terrorists. Contra killers are called freedom fighters. Well, if crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight? They never mention that part of it to us, do they? Never mention that part of it.

And…and some of this stuff is just silly, we all know that, like on the airlines, they say want to pre- board. Well, what the hell is pre-board, what does that mean? To get on before you get on? They say they’re going to pre-board those passengers in need of special assistance. Cripples! Simple honest direct language. There is no shame attached to the word cripple that I can find in any dictionary. No shame attached to it, in fact it’s a word used in bible translations. Jesus healed the cripples. Doesn’t take seven words to describe that condition. But we don’t have any cripples in this country anymore. We have The physically challenged. Is that a grotesque enough evasion for you? How about differently abled. I’ve heard them called that. Differently abled! You can’t even call these people handicapped anymore. They’ll say, “Were not handicapped. Were handicapable!” These poor people have been bullshitted by the system into believing that if you change the name of the condition, somehow you’ll change the condition. Well, hey cousin, ppsssspptttttt. Doesn’t happen. Doesn’t happen.

We have no more deaf people in this country, hearing impaired. No ones blind anymore, partially sighted or visually impaired. We have no more stupid people. Everyone has a learning disorder…or he’s minimally exceptional. How would you like to be told that about your child? “He’s minimally exceptional.” “Oohh, thank god for that.” Psychologists actually have started calling ugly people, those with severe appearance deficits. It’s getting so bad, that any day now I expect to hear a rape victim referred to as an unwilling sperm recipient.

And we have no more old people in this country. No more old people. We shipped them all away, and we brought in these senior citizens. Isn’t that a typically American twentieth century phrase? Bloodless, lifeless, no pulse in one of them. A senior citizen. But I’ve accepted that one, I’ve come to terms with it. I know it’s to stay. We’ll never get rid of it. That’s what they’re going to be called, so I’ll relax on that, but the one I do resist. The one I keep resisting is when they look at an old guy and they’ll say, “Look at him Dan! He’s ninety years young.” Imagine the fear of aging that reveals. To not even be able to use the word “old” to describe somebody. To have to use an antonym. And fear of aging is natural. It’s universal. Isn’t it? We all have that. No one wants to get old. No one wants to die, but we do! So we bullshit ourselves. I started bullshitting myself when I got to my forties. As soon as I got into my forties I’d look in the mirror and I’d say, “well, I…I guess I’m getting…older.” Older sounds a little better than old doesn’t it? Sounds like it might even last a little longer. Bullshit, I’m getting old! And it’s okay, because thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won’t have to die…I’ll pass away. Or I’ll expire like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital, they’ll call it a terminal episode. The insurance company will refer to it as negative patient-care outcome. And if it’s the result of malpractice, they’ll say it was a therapeutic misadventure. I’m telling you, some of this language makes me want to vomit. Well, maybe not vomit. Makes me want to engage in an involuntary personal protein spill.”

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