Nice or nasty? The case of the ambiguous euphemism

We all know what a euphemism is right? Yes, it’s a mild or polite expression used instead of something harsh or unpleasant sounding. Euphemisms are often used when dealing with taboo topics and are helpful for avoiding embarrassment. For this reason our discourse on subjects like sex and death is usually littered with euphemistic language, such as:

  • ‘John passed away yesterday evening’
  • ‘Grandmother is no longer with us
  • ‘Did you sleep with my boyfriend?’
  • “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived.”

Euphemisms are not always used for polite reasons, of course. They can often be employed for evasive reasons, allowing the speaker or writer to attempt to skirt around or deliberately avoid an awkward issue. Militaristic jargon offers plenty of examples of this slippery language use:

  • collateral damage – killed and wounded civilians
  • friendly fire – accidentally shooting soldiers from the same side
  • enhanced interrogation techniques – torture

Typically, George Orwell was one of the first writers to highlight the use of this equivocal and deceitful language. If you haven’t read it, check out his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language”.

So far, so straightforward.

Less well known is the opposite of euphemism: dysphemism. Etymologically euphemism comes from the Greek eu (‘well’) and pheme (‘speaking’), whereas its antonym means ‘bad-speaking’. Dysphemism therefore deals with the vulgar and the derogatory, deliberately making things sound worse or at least less dignified than they might otherwise be:

  • kicked the bucket
  • topped himself
  • ‘They have made worms’ meat of me’ (Mercutio)

As this is a respectable and well-mannered blog, I’ll not share any examples of sexual dysphemisms. I’m sure you can come up with some if you think long and hard.

Dysphemism is a term that is well worth teaching your pupils, given that it allows a nice counterbalance to efforts to modify language in a more pleasant direction. Knowledge of both terms offers pupils a greater opportunity to evaluate language choice. Let’s look at the example above and consider why Shakespeare used dysphemism for Mercutio’s death throes dialogue. ‘Worm’s meat’ evokes a gruesome image for Romeo and Tybalt (and the assembled feuding families) to dwell on. It acts as a reminder of the grim consequences of the frivolous violence: Mercutio’s corpse will decompose and he will become food for insects (are worms insects? Probably but I can’t be bothered to look this up). Look at the results of your honour and testosterone-fuelled dispute, his blunt language seems to say.

This is all very interesting, but my favourite part of teaching these two terms is when they intersect, when we are confronted by a word or phrase that blurs the lines between well- and bad-speaking. My Year 13 class came across an example recently when we were looking at the poem ‘On Her Blindness’ by Adam Thorpe:

If I gave up hope of a cure, I’d bump/myself off…

One pupil nailed this down as a euphemism:

  • It’s avoiding direct reference to a taboo subject (suicide)
  • ‘bump’ is a gentle verb, as opposed to ‘crash’ or ‘hit’ say

Which is difficult to argue with. But another pupil (politely, of course) did, identifying it as a dysphemism:

  • It’s blunt and direct – instead of something like  ‘fall on my sword’ or ‘take my own life’
  • If you consider what would make the ‘bump’ – jumping off a tall building or in front of a vehicle – the verb actually seems a lot harsher and more violent than on first appearances
  • It’s an insensitive phrase. Unless you were callous you wouldn’t use this phrase to discuss someone who had tragically taken their own life

Which is difficult to argue with also.

Since then, we’ve started to notice more of these ambiguous occurrences, these grey areas between propriety and disparagement. And recognition of these nuanced phrases makes for sophisticated grappling with the writer’s use of language.

Right, I better go now. I need to use the bathroom/go for a slash.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

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Back to school. Beware novelty.

“We survive on novelty, so much less demanding than commitment.” 
― Mikhail Lermontov

Unlike the rest of the population, who do this kind of thing at the start of January, teachers usually make their new year resolutions at the end of August. We skip (or sometimes trudge) back, full of new ideas, new goals, new pedagogical practices gleaned from a summer of reading blogs and edubooks, while the rest of those on the beach flicked nonchalantly through Dan Browns and thrillers with the word ‘Train’ in the title.

Workload and burnout issues to one side, this is a good thing. If only as many pupils as teachers turned up for that fuzzy first day determined to improve and work smarter, after a period of reflection about their work habits, and the effectiveness of their intellectual input and output. I’m just as guilty of this as the others. I write blogs to (hopefully) help people think about, and even improve, their teaching. I want them to make notes. With a highlighter, if they must. I believe in picking up new ideas, in becoming a better teacher. And yet. And yet…

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Sometimes the quest for improvement becomes a search for novelty. Novelty is great. It is fun, fresh and funky. To start with. The successful novelty single enters the Top 40 (younger readers, ask your parents), spends two weeks at the top of the charts, gains ubiquity on the nation’s radio stations, sells a gazillion copies, appears on Top of the Pops (younger readers, ask your parents), before finally making a swift, undignified descent out of the charts and into oblivion (otherwise known as local radio).

The same often happens with new teaching ideas. It especially happens with new school policies. In the meantime, the kids – who at the start of term are bombarded with new tasks and sexy strategies – are sometimes left bewildered and dizzied by change. Until the next new thing comes along.

In the past, I was very guilty of this. My pupils will get bored, I’d tell myself, if we do the same thing over and over again. Repetition is the enemy, I thought. The boredom, of course, was all mine. I wanted something shiny and unaccustomed, not them. Not all the time anyway. They were quite happy revisiting topics, using the same skills, until they’d got the hang of it.

Now, I do less and do it more often. Familiarity hasn’t yet bred contempt in my classroom. I asked my Year 10 class last year – I’m aware this is a methodologically dubious way of garnering evidence – what single thing I’d done that they thought had helped them improve over the course of the year. Number one was the use of memory platform starters at the beginning of nearly every single lesson. I was worried that my students might find this dull. Instead, they enjoyed the routine, found it reassuringly predictable, and most importantly, found it most helpful in advancing their knowledge.

So what am I going to do differently this year? I will be:

  • introducing a couple of things I picked up from Andy Tharby’s excellent Making Every English Lesson Count
  • finally getting round to buying and using a visualiser
  • spending a bit more time on teaching root words and etymology when developing vocabulary

And that’s about it. In other words, I’ll be refining, not charging in gung ho like a child tearing open presents on Christmas day.

I hope you’re feeling energised and revitalised by your break and by the splendid new tips you’ve picked up. Do yourself and your students a favour though: don’t lob out the sparrow from the fount of new found knowledge*. By all means innovate, but don’t tear up what already works in your search for improvement.

 

* and don’t invent bad new idioms, when perfectly serviceable cliches will do