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Euphemistically Speaking

Nice words to talk about all those things that aren’t so nice.

By John Cadley


Funny You Should Say That

In last month’s column I described how politicians have perfected the art of saying what they don’t mean. This month I would like to talk about how the rest of us are equally adept at not saying what we do mean. I’m speaking of euphemisms, those handy little words and phrases we use to talk about things we’d rather not talk about. Going to the bathroom, for instance. Nobody says, “I’m going to the bathroom.” For some reason that’s like publicly announcing exactly what you intend to do there. (My Uncle Ted did announce it, and proudly, but trust me, you don’t want to be like my Uncle Ted.) Instead, we “use the restroom.” Never mind that there’s no resting going on. It spares us the visual, and that’s a good thing.

Euphemisms like this abound because life is so full of unpleasantries, more so in certain areas than others—like medicine. Going to the doctor is unpleasant for two reasons: Something unpleasant has brought you there, and there’s a good chance that what the physician has to say about it will be equally unpleasant. Medical practitioners used to soften the blow by using technical jargon to give your condition an air of grandiosity, almost as if you should feel proud to have it. Wouldn’t you rather hear the doctor proclaim triumphantly, “Ah yes, a classic case of onychocryptosis,” than to hear him mutter with a yawn, “You have an ingrown toenail.” I know I would. Now, however, in our patient-friendly world, the euphemisms appear in kinder, gentler terms. For instance, if your doctor says that he or she is “concerned” or “doesn’t like” something involving your health, chances are you can expect a fair amount of unpleasantness in your immediate future.

Wouldn’t you rather hear the doctor proclaim triumphantly, “Ah yes, a classic case of onychocryptosis,” than to hear him mutter with a yawn, “You have an ingrown toenail.”

Airline travel is another area where language must be chosen carefully so as not to agitate people who are already agitated simply because they have to travel by airline. Recently, I was stuck in an airport while my flight was continually delayed. Knowing that this would result in missed connections, canceled business meetings, shortened vacations, and general weeping, groaning and gnashing of teeth, the gate agent cheerfully announced that the airline was graciously rolling out its “amenities cart” to help us through this troubled time. Amenity is a nice word. It means some kind of gratuitous convenience or service, which in this case took the form of stale fruit bars and warm bottled water. We were invited to partake of these “amenities” at our leisure, while my wife translated what they were really saying: “Welcome to your worst nightmare. Have a cookie.”

Pilots, too, are well aware that their precious cargo of 280 passengers contains a goodly number who are not comfortable sitting in a metal tube hurtling 30,000 feet above terra firma at 500 miles an hour. So if the flight encounters bad weather, the captain calmly informs you of some “chop” that could make the ride “bumpy”—which is so much better than saying: “There’s a thunderstorm ahead which I’m trying to avoid because if I don’t, you’re going to know what it’s like to be in the spin cycle of a washing machine.” So yes, “chop” and “bumpy” will do just fine, thank you very much.

Of course, the ultimate unpleasantry for us human beings is when we cease to be—otherwise known as “death.” There are so many euphemisms for the dreaded D word that we’ve had to break them up by category. If you’re the active type, you can kick the bucket, buy the farm or bite the dust. Fishing enthusiasts can go to Davey Jones’ Locker or, if their business associates were of a certain kind, sleep with the fishes. Sociable types will be happy to meet their maker, gamblers can cash in their chips, gardeners will push up daisies and those of a more technical bent can sustain a negative outcome. English majors, on the other hand, can reference the Bard by shuffling off their mortal coil, and comedians can check into the Horizontal Hilton or Motel Deep 6, depending on their budget. And if all this colorful language is too much, you are free to simply succumb, pass, depart or croak.

And the euphemism for my demise? Well, being a writer I guess the choice is obvious: The End.