In Other Words…

In Other Words…

I have a friend with one eye; he wears a plaid eyepatch, not at all piratical.  He has grown weary of the question: “How did you lose your eye?”   He responds, “I didn’t lose it; I know exactly where it is.”  So, unable to wear an artificial eye fashioned for him by a well-meaning doctor, he had the fake one mounted on a chain around his neck and simply points at it when aggrieved.

In this case, “lose your eye” is a euphemism for “what happened to your face”; a somewhat more direct question. “When did your eye pop out?”is palpably blunt.  So is the more technical, “I see you have been through a process of enucleation.”  Once you enter into a conversation about missing eyes with a person missing one or more eyes, it really doesn’t much matter how you phrase things; no amount of gentle language redirects attention from the missing orb(s).

If you want or need to know, you might as well just ask what happened to his eye.

Euphemisms do serve a purpose in ordinary discourse.  There is some delicacy, in the use of  “currently between jobs” and “letting someone go” instead of “unemployed” and “fired”.  The meaning is still clear, but softened by the speaker’s hope that the conversation might go somewhere other than joblessness.

Today’s exercise is all about saying what we mean without entirely saying what we mean, in other words, with euphemism.  Exactly.  In other words.

My friend’s glass eye aside, I have nothing against euphemisms; they can be quite handy.  In fact, at their best,  euphemisms demonstrate sensitivity to language and audience; we use euphemism when we guess that a more raw, undecorated expression might give offense.  It is important to remember, however, that euphemisms come into play in situations in which WE might be embarrassed; nobody is going to be injured if we ask the way to the bathroom (already slightly euphemistic in that we’re probably not looking to take a bath), but we ask the way to the rest-room, one more euphemistic degree removed from the toilet.  We avoid the direct, blunt, purely factual in order to put a slightly prettier spin on the situation.

It’s not surprising that death and bodily functions are the subjects that have racked up the most euphemistic invention; any one of these can be wince-worthy if addressed indelicately. Look, both are eminently natural and virtually inevitable, so what’s our problem?  I suspect we have different sorts of problems with each; our culture encourages some hefty magical thinking across the board, however, essentially hoping that things unsaid are unobserved, or, in the case of death, avoided.

Yup, against my wishes it appears that I’m almost certain to die (almost?  hedging, hedging…).  Is the prospect more easily accepted if I think I’m going to pass away?  Uh, no thanks.  Shuffle off this  mortal coil, push up daisies, head to the last round-up, take a dirt nap?  Still not giggling.  I’m certainly not looking forward to biting the big one, kicking the bucket, counting worms, cashing in my chips, or croaking.

At least croaking has some basis in physiology.  Sleeping with the fishes?  Not unless I cross a mob boss, in which case, I might with equal probability wear a cement bathing suit and would not simply check out (supermarket finale?), I would be rubbed out, erased, clipped, iced, whacked. or snuffed.

So, let’s assume I am whacked or clipped or snubbed or rubbed out. At that point I would become a stiff, the remains, the dearly departed, the corpus delicti, or cold meat.

When it comes to bodily functions, we appear to be euphemistically challenged.

The weight of cultural approbation of urination, a reasonably necessary practice for almost all of us, is revealed in euphemistic arrested development.  Straight from the nursery we get having to go potty,  winky tink, visit the little girls’ room, tinkle, wee wee, piddle.  The less juvenile phrases seem curiously elaborate: take a leak, drain the dragon,  see a man about a horse (or dog).  Briticisms, however, seem to lend authority to every necessity, allowing us happily to visit the loo while the adventurer can pop off for a quick slash.

Perhaps the richest trove of terrifying euphemisms is to be found in examining affairs of state.  No need to recommend torture, simply ask for enhanced interrogation methods. It’s tough to make a statement in the wider world without incurring collateral damage, by which we mean death or dismemberment.  That may be a bit harsh; perhaps it would be more correct to say when threatened, we need to neutralize opponents, to disappear them.  Explanations abound although some may fall into the category of alternative facts.

Each of us carries a supply of euphemisms for all occasions, and I remain grateful for those that have served me well over many years of evasion and dissembling.  How else might I have suggested a colleague’s intellectual limitations without reminding friends that he was one sandwich short of a picnic?  How could I explain my employment situation without suggesting that I was between jobs after having been dehired or let go? I’d be at a loss if I had to explain the great deal on a television set without explaining that it fell off the back of a truck.  As one forced to diet from time to time, I have been on occasion generously proportioned, husky, no slenderella, a natural body type, robust, portly, a man of substance, hefty, and big-boned.  I may even have sported a set of love handles.

We speak more plainly, I think, than we did a generation or two ago.  At the very least, we can use the word pregnant without embarrassment, no need to talk about a bun in the oven.  Then, when a child is born, we need not describe the event as a visit from the stork.  Glad we got over being uncomfortable talking about the birds and the bees!








Vulgarians At The Gates

Vulgarians At The Gates

I’m a modern man, quasi-modern anyway, and yet, despite having read widely and having watched any number of foul-mouthed stand-up comedians and virtually everything Quentin Tarantino has written or directed, I am still a little bit shocked when I hear what was once called “blue” language or swearing – obscenities, anatomically graphic descriptions of perfectly normal bodily functions, and blasphemy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily critical of that kind of language; in many cases, it hardly registers (another issue for another day), and when used judiciously (another issue) often very effective.  What interests me is not that you swear or Tarantino’s characters swear, or any public figure swears, or even my own kids swear, but that I still feel embarrassed when I use these sorts of words outside of very close friendships.  If I’ve whacked myself with a hammer, a common outcome of my efforts at home improvement, I try to say “Shazbat!!” or “Blast!”, or, most laughably, “Son of a Sea Cook”, fail most of the time, but regret that failure almost as much as I regret whacking myself with a hammer.  It’s almost impossible to quote contemporary speech without encountering  a slew of words once considered offensive, so I find myself dancing around the danger zones, hoping the person with whom I’m speaking will get the gist of the reference without my having to dive into the deep end of the pool.  Those “So and So’s”!

I wasn’t raised with missionaries; I’m not sure where these taboos were hatched. I do remember the concern my mother and grandmother had about my use of what they called vulgarisms.  They didn’t swear (my mother used “Ships!”when aggrieved), and I didn’t swear much, certainly not in front of them, but I did use terms commonly tossed around at school and in most settings other than my grandmother’s house.  I’m not sure when I became aware of the dissonance between the language “out there”, language my grandmother would have called vulgar and proper English usage, but correction came early and often.

Vulgar.  It’s not a word with much currency these days; we’ve sailed into a nether world of routine vulgarity, pretty much found in ordinary speech, G rated movies, and mainstream television.  I’m not talking about those words that are consigned to cable television, words which bring the R rating.  I’m talking about words and phrases which in my youth were never used in polite company such as “damn”, “hell”, “crap”, “bastard”, “sucks”, “piss”, “pissed off”, “bitch”, “balls”, “effing”, “fricking”, “dick”, “whore”. I’ve used them all, probably in a single sentence, and yet, I find myself blushing as I put these words in print.

Exasperated?  Fed up?  Ok, then you might say something like “Darn!”  “Shoot!”, “Fiddlesticks!”, “Shucks!”  Even then, on thin ice.  As I look back (as it were), I’m amused at the number of words we found to describe the human posterior, all of which would then have been considered vulgar – behind, rear, rear end, tail, bottom, can, fanny, butt, buttocks, caboose, buns, heinie (probably from hindquarter?), backside, derriere, rump, seat, haunches, keister, patootie.  People made jokes about donkeys knowing that the word ass could refer to the mammal, but I recall being heartily amused when someone in 5th grade called me a “half-ass”; the image was just too absurd.

This was an era in which families corrected children who said can instead of may, as in, “Can I have a glass of lemonade? ” an error of such obvious injury that it was immediately followed by parental instruction, “May I have a glass of lemonade?”

“Hey,” one might have said, “You know what I mean.”

At which point, the same parents would respond, “Hay is for horses”, almost certainly ensuring that further efforts at communication were useless.

This was an era in which children informed their parents that they had to do Number One or Number Two and so were led to the potty.  Yikes!

My life changed forever when my parents pulled me from the comfy public school in my home town to send me to the fancy private boarding school (in my home town), a shift that I believe was the result of my having become too vulgar for their taste.  Not only had I learned to spit, and I mean spit really well, but I had become quite comfortable using the word, Ain’t.  I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s hindquarters.

Elvis Presley was an inescapable force of nature in my formative years, and his locutions struck me as pretty cool, cool also being a word my parents could not abide.  “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”  Double negatives aside, ain’t never and ain’t no tugged at my folks’ sense of propriety, and, looking back at it, probably put a dent in the image that they had of themselves as highly educated, culturally sophisticated, and thoroughly refined.  Vulgar, as I see it now, was a class thing.  Ain’t no doubt.

It worked, of course.  I stopped saying Ain’t.  I did, however, begin to hear the kind of schoolboy humor that warped my understanding of the relationship between men and women and taught me a vocabulary that would have made my grandmother turn purple.  When I think of what passed for humor in the darkened dormitory (no doors, beds separated by curtains), I wonder how any of us managed to negotiate the world with any semblance of grace.

Without dropping into yet another paen to the legendary heroes of my youth, let me simply say that I took great pleasure in listening to baseball games broadcast after the lights were killed in the dormitory.  Headphones would have been a fantastic, futuristic invention , so I had to pull my radio under my blankets and lie, sweating, with my ear to the speaker.  The voice I heard was that of Red Barber, “The Ol’ Redhead”, raised in Mississippi, possibly the most conscientiously neutral and deliberate of broadcasters, who, in a sweetly thick southern drawl, expressed strong feelings with exclamations such as “Oh, Doctor, that ball is gone!”.  When a team was doing well, he would say, “They’re tearing up the pea patch!”

Whats the point of introducing Red Barber?  Years later, I hear Barber explain that he never swore because he was concerned that in a moment of passion, he might let loose with an obscenity.  As a teacher, I understood completely.  Did I slip?  Probably, but I can’t remember a truly egregious gaffe, in part because I take words seriously and spent a fair amount of time correcting the can and may, his and their, and not simply correcting but responding unhappily to sucks and pissed.

I don’t think of myself as a fossil or dinosaur, but when it comes to contemporary usage, I’m positively Paleozoic.  So, let the vulgarities fly; fiddlesticks, I say, Oh, Doctor, what the heck, not a blessed thing I can do about it.