Euphemism As Analgesic
A euphemism is a way of describing something to make it less offensive, rude, or insensitive than the word or phrase it substitutes. Euphemisms come...
A euphemism is a way of describing something to make it less offensive, rude, or insensitive than the word or phrase it substitutes. Euphemisms come into play so often in our life that we barely notice them. But they have a long and storied history
Next time you come across a euphemism, save it. Don’t consign it to the grammar book. Among the many ways you can use it is to absorb shock. This realization is what made top American scientists recommend last week sweeping changes in the definition of cancer and the elimination of the word entirely from some common diagnoses.
They say that some premalignant conditions should be renamed to exclude the word carcinoma so that frightened patients are less likely to seek potentially harmful surgical treatments. In other words, they were looking for a euphemism that could salve the pain of cancer. Remember what Rajesh Khanna had said in Anand: ‘lymphosarcoma of the intestine.’ The phrase numbs the senses through simple incomprehension.
People find euphemisms handy to sugarcoat lies, to camouflage misdemeanour, to derive fun and sometimes to understate reality. A euphemism is a way of describing something to make it less offensive, rude, or insensitive than the word or phrase it substitutes. Euphemisms come into play so often in our life that we barely notice them. But they have a long and storied history.
Winston Churchill was a master of euphemisms.
Then (1906) an undersecretary in the government, he wanted to tell the House of Commons that a member’s reference to conditions in Transval was a lie. He used the phrase ‘terminological inexactitude’ to get around a possible accusation of using unparliamentary language. Fast-forward to the present. A fortnight ago, a member of the Michigan House of Representatives Lisa Brown was debarred from House proceedings for a day for failing to use a euphemism to neutralize the shock of the word ‘vagina.’ What else could she have said?
All of us have heard of wardrobe malfunction after Justin Timberlake had tugged at Michael Jackson’s sister Janet Jackson’s blouse during a Super Bowl half time show. Part of her blouse came off baring her “private parts” (yet another euphemism). This particularly chunky euphemism caught on like wild fire and came in handy when a model dropped her halter at a Lakme Fashion Show in Mumbai in March 2006 and shammed embarrassment.
Euphemisms are not just used to sugarcoat the tawdry. In literature they are a figurative tool. A character in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart uses the euphemism ‘white skin’ to mean a leper. In Chimamanda Adichi’s Americanah, Ifamelu’s friend Ginika tells her that ‘half-caste’ which is such a complimentary euphemism in Nigeria is verboten in the US and that she should use ‘biracial’ instead. In “Much Ado About Nothing,” a lover swears, “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap and be buried in thy eyes.” Very romantic if we overlook the carnal undertones. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that in the 16th and 17th centuries, “die” was a metaphor for experiencing climactic pleasure. A character in one of Haruki Murakami’s novels asks another, ‘will you charge my batteries?’ to ask if he can go to bed with her.
Some South Indian euphemisms are dedicated to the cause of prudery. The old-fashioned ‘out of doors’ refers to a woman in her periods. My family has gone to her natal home means my wife has gone to her mother’s place. Some illiterate persons in the Telugu-speaking region use funereal euphemisms to curse. ‘Dust in your mouth’ (nee notlo mannu bada) and ‘log on your face,’ (nee mohanna moddulu petta). The first refers to a burial and the second to cremation. Traditionalists use lavanam for salt, asuddham for shit. The possibilities seem endless.
The economic establishment uses some euphemisms to camouflage unrestrained profligacy. One of them is NPAs aka non-performing assets,. These are debts that may never get paid and are eligible to be written off. Debt restructuring means changing the terms of the loan easier for the borrower (industrialists and other adventurers) to make payments that may never be made anyway. ‘Kickbacks’ are a euphemism for bribery. Lobbying too. A better word is public relations.
But the brand new figure of speech is dysphemism coined in 1991. It is the opposite of euphemism., using an intentionally harsh word or phrase instead of a polite one. In the early eighties Eenadu published a news item with the headline reading ‘Ruckus in the Council’ (Peddala sabhalo galaabhaa) to refer to heated exchanges in the legislative council. Congress members moved a privilege motion against Eenadu’s chief editor, objecting to the use of the word 'galaabhaa,' which perhaps they considered as a dysphemism. The chairman of the Council summoned the chief editor to appear before the House. Chief Minister Rama Rao responded by abolishing the House.
Narendra Modi gathered quite a number of dysphemisms. Sonia Gandhi hailed him as ‘maut ka saudagar.’ Hindustan Times called him ‘Hindu Fuehrer.’ Pity, the Padma award went to The Indian Express. Some intellectuals seeking Padma awards termed Gujarat riots a pogrom, genocide etc. And youngsters who made a nuisance of themselves for 15 minutes in a Mangalore pub won the appellation of ‘Hindu Taliban’ from the Hindu.
The rights people have given us a few euphemisms like sex workers for prostitutes, pro-choice for abortion, gay for homosexuality, differently-abled persons for persons with inadequate mental and physical faculties. These differently worded labels don’t really help because the use of any signifier ends up evoking the referent. Visually disabled is bound to summon the image of a blind person. Why do we need euphemisms? Is it not good to be direct and to the point? Euphemisms probably reflect an underlying strain of empathy in humans. They perhaps signal a need to feel happy and minimize stress. Still, without euphemisms the world will be a poorer and harsher place to live in.
(The writer is a senior Indian journalist who now lives in the US