'An excellent book, and not just for wordsmiths.' -- Dorset Echo (September 2007)
'Utterly delightful and instructive'
-- The Observer
A little treasure giving details on how euphemisms originated and the sometimes embarrassing reality of phrases currently in use.' -- Publishing News (May 2007)
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Naming is magical. The delight, fear, reverence that we experience in the face of the phenomena of life, human behaviour and the world around us soak into the words we use to name them. When we utter the words, this power is released: the force of the original is reproduced, even magnified.
This is all very well when the import of a word is positive, or even - as is mostly the case - just neutral or mundane. But there are some experiences we would rather not conjure up quite so vividly. There are some things that are better left unnamed. Most people in most societies throughout history have found it difficult in many circumstances to refer directly to, for example, the excretion of waste matter from the body. Frank words for the sexual and excretory organs tend to be avoided unless particular social conditions permit them. Death and killing, disease, sexual activity, dishonesty, drunkenness, nakedness, fatness, ugliness, old age, madness - in short, anything that we are ashamed of: this is where the taboos of language operate.
But such topics must from time to time be addressed, however much we might prefer to avoid them. If we cannot bring ourselves to break the taboos, alternative methods must be found. This is the role of euphemism. Euphemism is the set of communicative strategies we have evolved to refer to a topic under a taboo, without actually contravening its terms.
A selection of extracts from Wobbly Bits:
* Terrified of the stigma attached to the word `failure', some early 21st-century educationists floated the idea of replacing it with 'deferred success', but this triumph of the euphemizer's art, with its empty promise of jam tomorrow, not surprisingly met with little but derision.
* Suspects arrested by the CIA are deemed circumlocutiously to be 'ill', and when they have been jailed they are 'in the hospital'. The practice of the CIA (particularly in the wake of the attack on the USA on 11 September 2001) of seizing terror suspects in one foreign country and transporting them to another one (typically one where a blind eye is turned to torture) is obfuscated by the gobbledegook term 'extraordinary rendition'.
* The politically correct lobby's contribution to a new non-judgmental terminology includes [for prostitute] 'sex worker' or 'commercial sex worker' (CSW for short), and also 'sex care provider', which makes the job sound like a social service. A more upmarket-sounding alternative is 'executive-stress consultant' (`knickerless Ukrainian executive-stress consultants', A A Gill, 2007).
* To air-traffic controllers, an incident in which two aircraft nearly collide involves merely a 'loss of separation', and those who have charge of the nuclear industry characterize a power-station meltdown as a 'critical power excursion'.
* Inherently innocuous food may quickly attract taboos by association, notably in the arena of international rivalry or enmity: hence in the USA during World War I sauerkraut, associated with the German foe, was renamed 'liberty cabbage', and the reluctance of the French to cooperate with the USA during the 2003 invasion of Iraq led to the rechristening of french fries (i.e. chips) as 'freedom fries'.