You are on page 1of 9

Anvari 1

Amanda Anvari Final Paper ENC 4298 April 19th, 2012 What’s in a Word? In any type of prose, technical and non-technical, one of the key things a writer must consider is diction or appropriate word choice. When a writer decides what words he/she will use to best convey the message of the prose, several things are taken into consideration: audience, subject, context, etc…Sometimes, the writer will write about a topic that is uncomfortable or unpleasant. A journalist, for example, may cover a story on a serial killer and will need to choose his/her words carefully when describing the killer’s actions. Another example might be a politician who needs to tell citizens of a country that they will be going to war with another country. For this reason, he/she would need to write a speech to deliver and once again, choose his/her words carefully to avoid frightening people exceedingly. Fortunately, there are words that are helpful in situations such as these and they are called euphemisms. In “Technical Writing Style”, written by Dr. Dan Jones, euphemisms are defined as “words or expressions that aim at politeness…they attempt to avoid the truth by substituting pleasant or inoffensive words for ones that might be considered course or rude” (Jones 109). While this definition makes the intention of euphemisms clear, it also introduces a potential problem with their use. It has been argued that euphemisms serve no other purpose that to falsify the truth and contain detrimental language elements that make the words they are attempting to cover up appear worse than they actually are. While there is discussion concerning the detrimental language that lies within euphemisms, their value is technical and non-technical

Anvari 2

prose is still certain. In the following paragraphs I will discuss three classifications of euphemisms and demonstrate ways in which they may contain detrimental language and can therefore be deemed negative; I will also demonstrate that while euphemisms may contain negative aspects, they are still vital elements in diction. According to James Kilpatrick, author of “The Writer’s Art”, euphemisms have three classifications: Euphemisms of Inflation, Euphemisms of Modesty or Taste, and Euphemisms of Deception (Jones 109). The first classification of euphemisms, “Euphemisms of Inflation” is the most modest form of euphemism use. This is where euphemisms serve the same purpose but in less sincere circumstances. For example, when we refer to a maid or a cleaning lady, we generally do so as a “housekeeper”. Housekeep is a euphemism for maid. In this case, the word housekeeper is somewhat deceptive, because it implies a greater responsibility than the word the maid. Euphemisms generally make things appear better than they actually are. In other words, “you could call euphemism the deodorant of language; if so, a code of silent omissions would correspond to the private preliminary shower bath that renders antiperspirants unnecessary” (Adams). The word maid suggests a woman cleaning up after another person; maid implies subservience. However, the word housekeeper suggests a woman or a man being is charge of keeping the organization of a household under control and this does not imply subservience. The fact of the matter is that the two words mean the same thing, “the reality behind both antiperspirants and shower baths is that we naturally stink…” (Adams). The words ‘housekeeper” and “maid” are equally subservient. The second category euphemism is “Euphemisms of Modesty or Taste”. This type of euphemism is perhaps the most forgiving and innocently used type of diction. For example, if someone is unemployed, he/she might say that he/she is “between jobs”. In this case, there is no

Anvari 3

real falsification of the truth because technically speaking; the person is between an old job and a new one. This is an example of euphemisms being a beneficial use. However, if the intention of euphemisms is to expose the beauty of something that is not obviously beautiful, what is it that they are trying to hide, “if the root act of euphemism is suppression or evasion, and therefore untruth, a frequent precondition is some kind of elevation or pretension (whether moral, social, or stylistic) which the euphemism tries to sustain” (Adams). The concern with euphemisms becomes focused on the negative aspect that is being covered up by the positive descriptions. Another way in which euphemisms are used positively is when we refer to a mentally retarded person as “special” or “challenged”. The reality is, the person is mentally retarded but we use euphemism here because we do not want to appear biased or politically incorrect. We use the term “African American” as a euphemisms for black as because we think it is bias to call a black person black. Although euphemism being used in this case are intended to protect the feelings of people, it can also be argues that the real bias lies within the need to cover up a nonexistent bias, “our objectification of language traditionally concentrates on propositional language” (Bolinger). The third classification of euphemisms is “Euphemisms of Deception”. This classification is supported by the argument that the euphemisms’ purpose is to falsify the truth. We know that the purpose of euphemisms is to falsify the truth, but to what extent does it become detrimental and corrupt? In “Soft Soap & the Nitty Gritty”, Robert Adams provides the following examples of euphemisms being used as lies: “President Reagan, trying to obscure the fact that the MX missile is an awesomely destructive weapon, tries to title it the ''Peacekeeper.'' Just so, ''liquidation'' used to be a favorite Soviet term for the process of resolving political differences, until the world caught on to what it meant; and Hitler had a ''final solution'' for the

Anvari 4

Jewish problem”(Adams). In the cases described by Adams, euphemisms most certainly serve as sources for falsifying the truth and although these were extreme cases, they serve as an example of euphemisms of deception. The term “deception” is associated with negativity and understandably so. No one wants to be deceived and no one should be, “a healthy society is one in which no department of knowledge remains a mystery” (Bolinger). Bolinger’s concern is that euphemisms are causing more damage than they are trying to shield. An example of this can be found in the Terry Shaivo case. Terry Shaivo case surrounded a woman who was in a permanent vegetative state; the issue her was whether or not it should have been allowed for her to be euthanized or “put to sleep”. In this case, “put to sleep” is the euphemism that is replacing the word killing. This euphemism exists so that authorities and decision makers surrounding this case did not have to say they were “killing” her because they did not feel that they were. Would it have been simpler to say they were killing her because she had no chance at a life? Bolinger might agree as he asserts that the problem with euphemisms is that they lack simplicity, “the problem is that they lack simplicity and directness, “obscurantist prose that public functionaries and other hide behind when they find it safer to sound impressive than be understood” (Bolinger). In the case of Terry Shaivo, directness was avoided and the objective was not to make her demise understood; the objective was to make it accepted. Based on Kilpatrick’s three classifications of euphemisms and the examples provided, it is fair to say that euphemisms do hide the truth. Up until now, I have examined the negative aspects of the three classifications of euphemisms; I will now explain how in most cases, euphemisms are necessary and hold high value. Although they may “conceal the truth”, (Jones 109), some truth may need to be concealed and perhaps, concealing certain truths are what make

Anvari 5

it possible to tolerate them. Euphemisms, regardless of their classification, serve a greater purpose than to merely make things sound better. Writer Nacona Nix notes the following sentence in her composition on euphemisms, “the true meaning, feeling, and intent veiled by the euphemism all depend upon the specific context in which the euphemism is used, thus allowing euphemisms to exist ambiguously, their true meanings known only to the specific language user” (Nix). While euphemisms may be have a negative effect in some cases, they also serve as an enhancer. While critics like Adams claim that euphemisms “prettify” things, “because euphemisms, which is an effort to make something sound specially nice, implies that unless prettified, it will be specially unacceptable, a euphemistic formation can easily turn into its opposite” (Adams), it is failed to be acknowledged that fact that some things need to be “prettified”. If we refer back to the example of the Terry Shaivo case, we can see that diction played an enormous role in the way her death was perceived. The public was told that she would be euthanized or “put to sleep”. The euphemism “put to sleep” reminded people of an animal in a shelter and therefore the question of euthanization I general became a sources of dispute. O’Neil would call a euphemisms such as this a politically correct term and being overly concerned with not being politically incorrect is the problem with euphemisms, according to O’Neil, “The problem with this drive for politically correct language is that it attempts to deal with the problems of negative semantic change by outlawing accurate descriptors rather than by trying to rehabilitate them or to use them with proper context and tone (O’Neil). While O’Neil’s point is certainly valid, he places far too much pressure and high expectation on language. The purpose of language is to express, not rehabilitate.

Anvari 6

When we examine the euphemism used in the Terry Shaivo case, we must realize that the language itself did not cause her death, but it did make it easier for people to handle. The central issues were still present and the diction used to describe what would take place did not change the situation on way or another. It is true that the euphemisms “put to sleep” or “euthanize” may be politically correct terms, but perhaps in some cases, such terms are necessary. Nix writes, “Disguising the reality of international politics (i.e. the reality of war) is a virtual necessity for nations pursuing self-interests defined as power. Most human beings, myself included, have never had a direct experience with war by which to fully comprehend the brutality it entails. So, in this respect, most nations reap the benefits of the public’s ignorance of the reality of warfare” (Nix). Nix is writing of the reality of war and I am writing about the Terry Shaivo case, but there lies a connection in terms of political correctness. It is necessary in both cases. As Nix notes, “Most human beings, myself included, have never had a direct experience with war by which to fully comprehend the brutality it entails” (Nix); most people have never had a direct experience with euthanization by which they can fully comprehend the brutality it entails. Whether one agrees with what happened to Shaivo or not is not the point. The point is, people need to hear a softer version of things sometimes and euphemisms make this possible. We can also see the use of euphemisms if we revert back to Adams’ example of the euphemism “Peacemaker” used to describe the MX missile. Let’s think for a moment and imagine of Reagan hadn’t called this dangerous missile a peacemaker; let’s suppose he called it what it was, a “destructor” for example. The word destructor is no doubt a negative word and it carries with it a negative connotation. When people hear negative words, their perception about the thing being described will be a negative one. Although the MX missile was, “an awesomely destructive weapon” (Adams), the general public did not need to hear that. Obviously, anyone

Anvari 7

with a basic level of education would know that a missile is dangerous and would not need descriptive words to tell them this. However, hearing it being called a “Peacemaker” delivers such positive connotation that it makes the overall subject of the missile accepting by people. Once again, the issue here is not about whether or not the missile is dangerous, because we already it is. The issue is about reinforcing the reality of danger within the language or not. While it is clear that euphemisms create mystery by hiding the truth and that hiding the truth is a negative action, we must also consider the alternative. Going back to the previous example of the term “liquidation” being used by the Soviets, let’s examine the alternative. If the Soviets used the word “elimination” instead of “liquidation”, people would have had a completely different reaction to what was taking place than they did. Because of the use of euphemisms, people during the time of the Holocaust, were in many ways ignorant of what was happening to the Jews. The Soviets had to use euphemisms to make what they were doing appear as Adams’ calls it, “prettified”. I would like to make it clear that while in this case I agree that euphemisms were used negatively, it is not the fault of the euphemism. It is the fault of the people exercising the actions that require the euphemisms to be used. Adams writes in his article, “Euphemisms thus serve as verbal placebos; they are particularly frequent when the ill-timed provocation could expose one to instant retaliation” (Adams). He is correct in this case because if euphemism were not used to describe what was happening during the holocaust, there would have been uproar and chaos by the citizens of the countries in which these horrible acts took place. Of course, such protests would have been needed, but looking at the situation from apolitical standpoint, it is clear that keeping people calm was in their best interest. The only for this to be accomplished was to make what they were doing seem like it wasn’t that bad. As Adams notes, “When there is an unwelcome truth to be hidden from others, euphemism

Anvari 8

flourishes; hence its special fondness for situations where codes or ideologies are under pressure” (Adams). The holocaust was certainly an unwelcome truth and should not have been hidden from others. If it weren’t hidden so well, perhaps there could have been a stop put to it sooner. Nix writes, “Without negative and harsh realities and subject matters, euphemisms would not exist” (Nix). Some realities and subject matters are harsh and it is a shame that they exist. The reality is however, that they do and people should be exposed to a constant negativity. For this reason euphemisms are valuable. By examining Kilpatrick’s three classifications of euphemisms and taking notice of the detrimental language that can be found in euphemism, it can be better understood that the negative aspects of euphemisms is a matter of the context in which they are used. Some cases, such as the Terry Shaivo case described previously, required the use of euphemisms to her situation more tolerable for the family and others to deal with. It was argued that this is a negative aspect of euphemisms because it took the focus off the situation instead of correcting it. Euphemisms do not take the focus off of situations, they transform them into something positive, “the politics of euphemism brings the brute physical reality of power into the sphere of the Human mind and heart, and language is the means of that transformation” (Nix). Euphemisms can contain detrimental language, but their value is still present. The art lies in knowing when and where to use them.

Anvari 9

Works Cited Adams, Robert. "Soft Soap and the Nitty Gritty." (1985). Academic Search Premier. Web. Apr. 2012. Bolinger, Dwight. "The Socially Minded Linguist." The Modern Language Journal 63.8 (1979): 404-07. JSTOR. Web. Apr. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/326024>. Jones, Daniel. "Choosing Appropriate Words-Diction." Technical Writing Style. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998. 109-10. Print. O'Neil, Ben. "A Critique of Politically Correct Language." 16.2 (2011): 279-91. Academic Search Premier.Web. 2012. Nix, Nacona. "Warspeak: The Politics of Euphemisms in International Relations. <www.unt.edu.> 2003. Web. 2012.

Related Interests