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Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 7816

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

In the days of Queen Elizabeth there were in England certain writers who were called "Euphuists." They got this name from the title of a book, "Euphues," written by one of them, John Lyly. The chief characteristic of the writings of these Euphuists was the grandiose way in which they wrote of the simplest things. Their writings were full of metaphors and figures of speech. The first Euphuists were looked upon as "refiners of speech," and Queen Elizabeth and the ladies at her court did their best to speak as much in the manner of Euphues as they could.

But all men at all times are unconscious Euphuists, in so far as they try to say ugly and unpleasant things in a way which will make them sound pleasant. This tendency in speech is called "euphemism," a word which is made from two Greek words meaning "to speak well." It is a true description of what the word means if by "well" we understand "as pleasantly as possible." The word euphēme?te, "speak fair," was used as a warning to worshippers in Greek temples, in the belief that the speaking of an unfortunate word might bring disaster instead of blessing from the sacrifice.

Every day, and often in a day, we use euphemisms. How often do we hear people say, "if anything should happen to him," meaning "if he died;" and on tombstones the plain fact of a person's death is nearly always stated in phrases such as "he passed away," "fell asleep," or "departed this life." People often refer to a dead person as the "deceased" or the "departed," or as the "late so-and-so." The fact is that, death being to most people the unpleasantest thing in the world, there is a general tendency to mention it as little as possible, and, when the subject cannot be avoided, to use vague and less realistic phrases than the words death, dead, or die.

One reason for this avoidance of an unpleasant subject is the superstitious feeling that mentioning a thing will bring it to pass. Or, again, if a misfortune has happened, many people feel that it only makes it worse to talk about it. While everybody avoids speaking on the subject, we can half pretend to ourselves that it is not true.

We might imagine that this kind of "refinement of speech" (which when carried to excess really becomes vulgar) was the result of modern people being so "nervous." But this is not the case. Complete savages have the same custom. If civilized people have a superstitious feeling that to mention a misfortune may bring it to pass, savages firmly believe that this is the case. Not only will they not mention the subject of death in plain words, but some will not even mention the name of a dead person or give that name to a new-born child, so that in some tribes names die out in this way. Many civilized people have this same idea that it is unlucky for a new-born child to be called by the name of a brother or sister who has already died.

The subject of death has gathered more euphemisms around it than almost any other. Some of them are ugly and almost vulgar, while others, from the way in which they have been used, are almost poetical. To speak of the "casualties" in a battle, meaning the number of killed and wounded men, seems almost heartless; but to say a man "fell in battle," though it means the same thing, is almost poetical, because it suggests an idea of courage and sacrifice. The expression, "Roll of Honour," is a euphemism, but poetical. It suggests the one consoling thought which relieves the horror of the bald expression, "list of casualties."

Another cause of the use of euphemisms, besides the superstitious fear of bringing misfortune by mentioning it too plainly, is the fear of being vulgar or indecent. Through this feeling words which are quite proper at one time pass out of use among refined people. English people do not freely use the word "stomach" in conversation, and are often a little shocked when they hear French

people describing their ailments in this region of the body. In the same way, names of articles of underclothing pass out of use. The old word for the garment which is now generally called a "chemise" was smock; but this in time became tinged with vulgarity, and the word shift was used. This in its turn fell out of use among refined people, who began to use the French word chemise. Even this, and the word drawers, which was also once a most refined expression, are falling into disuse, and people talk vaguely of "underlinen" in speaking of these garments. The shops which are always refined to the verge of vulgarity only allow themselves to use the French word lingerie.

Again, the faults of our friends and acquaintances, and even the graver offences of criminals, are matters with which we tend to deal lightly. Such offences have gathered a whole throng of euphemisms about them. When we do not like to say boldly that a person is a liar, we say the same thing by means of the euphemism a "stranger to the truth." Other lighter ways of saying that a person is lying is to say that he is "romancing," or "drawing the long bow," or "drawing on the imagination," or "telling a fairy tale." A thief will be described as a "defaulter," and we may say of a man who has stolen his employer's money as it passed through his hands that he is "short in his accounts."

Especially among the poorer or less respectable people, to whom the idea of crime becomes familiar, the use of slang euphemisms on this subject grows up. A person for whom the police are searching is "wanted." A man who is hanged "swings." These expressions may seem very dreadful to more refined people, but their use really comes from the same desire to be indulgent which leads more educated people to use euphemisms to cover up as far as possible the faults of their friends.

Again, misfortunes which come not from outside happenings but from some defect in a person's mind and body are often the subject of euphemisms. In Scotland a person who is quite an imbecile will be described as an "innocent"-a milder way of saying the same thing. Insane and crazy were originally euphemisms for mad, but now have come to be equally unpleasant descriptions. So for drunken the euphemism intemperate came to be used, but is now hardly a more polite description. We would not willingly speak of a person being "fat" in his presence. If it is necessary to touch on the subject, the word "stout" is more favoured. In the absence of the fat person the humorous euphemism may be used by which he or she is said to "have a good deal of embonpoint."

Many words are euphemisms in themselves, just as many words are complete metaphors in themselves. The word ill means literally "uncomfortable," but has come to have a much more serious meaning. Disease means literally "not being at ease," but the sense in which we use it describes something much more serious than the literal meaning. The word ruin is literally merely a "falling."

One result of words being used euphemistically is that they often cease to have their milder original meaning, and cease therefore to seem euphemistic at all. Vile, which now means everything that is bad, is in its literal and earlier use merely "cheap." Base, which has the meaning of unutterable meanness, is literally merely "low." Mercenary is not exactly a complimentary description now. It means that a person thinks far too much of money, but originally it merely meant "serving for pay," a thing which most men are obliged to do. Transgression is generally used now to describe some rather serious offence, but it literally means only a "stepping across." The "step" which it describes being, however, in the wrong direction, the word has come to have a more and more serious meaning. The study of euphemisms can teach us much about men's thoughts and manners in the past and the present.

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