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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