Why do humans need euphemisms, and what do they do to us?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Putting a good spin on things, verbally, can be a habit, a necessary business skill, or a vocation unto itself. Take a look at euphemism, who it hurts and who it benefits, and how different cultures, both internationally and intranationally, deploy it.

Euphemism is used across cultures and situations, but at its heart it's about getting away with something. Whether you want to get away with ever-so-gently implying that a certain someone is a drunk, or maintaining a little personal dignity, or orchestrating some really nasty business, you're employing sleight of hand.

Perhaps the most famous euphemism rant, stateside, came from George Carlin when he talked about the slow progress of military and medical lingo from 'shell shock,' through, 'battle fatigue' and 'operational exhaustion,' to the sterile and clinical 'post traumatic stress disorder,' with each stage making the words less visceral and more abstract, lessening the chance of people urgently demanding help for soldiers. If you agree with Carlin, this is a sinister use of euphemism. Real problems are sanitized so their effects aren't perceived as urgent.


But is medical euphemism always a bad thing? There seems to be a consensus that American English in particular tends towards these kinds of medical euphemisms. This is in part because of the evolution of understanding medical conditions, and in part because any time people widely begin to know of a medical condition, they tend to use it as a pejorative, giving the condition itself an unsavory air that needs to be exorcised by a new name.


There are bright sides to English-speaking delicacy. Pepto Bismol marketed itself as a general cure-all for 'nausea, indigestion, and diarrhea,' which could all be referred to as 'stomach trouble.' Being able to delicately ask the host at a party for pepto and a 'bathroom' because of 'tummy trouble,' instead of saying, "I am about to have a session of diarrhea like you wouldn't believe, probably because of your crappy food, so point me towards a toilet, preferably one that could flush a standing horse if it were necessary," is a much-needed euphemism.

Predominantly English-speaking countries, especially America, hang a gauzy curtain of language around biology of this kind. I remember my French teacher patiently explaining to the class that we shouldn't ask to go to the 'bathroom' in France, because that would lead us to a room with an actual bath. Toilets became bath rooms became, inexplicably, rest rooms. Toilet paper is referred to as 'bathroom tissue,' in ads. Slang like, 'in the can,' is supposedly more vulgar, but it is another euphemism for going to the toilet, which everyone knows you are anyway. Meanwhile, some Catalan cultures have 'the Caganer,' translated as 'the shitter,' as part of their Nativity scenes, and have toasts like, "Eat well, shit hard."


Though Americans and Britons might stand alone in their medical and gastronomical squeamishness, there are two areas of life that unite different cultures in their universal need for plausible deniability; sex and crime. With sex, the dance around saying what you actually mean goes back to the Bible, when men and women didn't have sex, they 'knew' each other, or 'lay with' each other. It travels forward to today, when 'adult' movies, products, and 'situations,' are pretty juvenile. Japanese people, going kitschy, call oral sex 'playing the bamboo flute.' China goes completely opaque with 'room business.'

When it comes to sex for sale, 'ladies of the evening' will walk the streets with 'members of the world's oldest profession,' and ask people if they 'want to party,' in English. In Cairo, potential clients will be asked if they want someone to wash their clothes. In Eastern Europe there are signs which prohibit 'cat selling.' Most people are on to 'massage parlors,' if said with a certain emphasis, but in China do check that no one is winking at you if they invite you to go to a 'hair salon.' Japanese people call brothels a mangled version of 'soapland.' Russian 'public houses,' are not bars. Germans just call them 'Puffs.' They don't need a reason.


Although it's supposedly a nicety, it's in crime that euphemism really stretches its legs. Ice someone, off someone, 'take care of' someone — we always know what they really mean, and yet I can't picture anyone saying, "I would like you to kill someone for money." People find the correct ways to offer drugs, ask for them, subtly or charmingly or funnily or outrageously let other people know they do them. When someone in a position of power over you asks for a 'donation,' people know what they mean. In China they combine the word 'yan' for cigarettes and 'jiu' for alcohol into the word, 'yanjiu,' which means research, and suggest that if you're having a problem with some public official you 'research' it together. Tough to say which is the bigger crime; the corruption or the pun.

Crime gravitates toward euphemistic language because, sociologically speaking, euphemism is what crime aspires to. Crime defies society, but euphemism is a sociologically sanctioned way of getting away with what you shouldn't. As a society, we agree to decide to continue to comprehend as toilet turns to bathroom turns to rest room, and shell shock turns to battle fatique turns to PTSD. We decide, for good, bad, or odd, that there are just things that we don't want to think about.


Image: MLive

Sign Image: Tombe

Via The Economist.