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Bahaa K.

Oudah

Scientific Supervisor: Candidate of Philology, Associate Professor E. I. Khabirova

EUPHEMISMS & COGNITIVE LINGUISTICS

This paper examines euphemisms and views their significance in the everyday use
of language as well as cognitive linguistics as a novel approach to the study of language.
Language is regarded as a cognitive ability that involves several mental processes such as
conceptualisation, categorisation, comprehension and understanding. Euphemisms are
powerful linguistic tools that are employed in favour of replacing a harsh or unpleasant
word, an expression or a phrase to a milder and rather an acceptable one as well as being
polite in front of the others. Due to the fact that all knowledge is cognitive per se, therefore
language is no different and is a part of the general cognition. Cognitive linguistics is a
new trend in linguistics that deals with investigating the relationship between language
and mind. Main semantic fields of euphemisms include death, religion and politics etc.
Keywords: euphemisms; cognitive linguistics; language; conceptualisation;
categorisation.
Introduction
Language is a means of communication that involves interaction among
interlocutors in order to arrive at desired linguistic results and to share knowledge.
Language is in a constant change in which some languages fall out of use whereas others
evolve as a result of the use of their speakers etc. In this sense, we process the words in
our minds before speaking them out or writing them. This comes from the reality that all
of our knowledge about the world is conceptualised in our minds. Language is a cognitive
capacity that is related to what is going on in our minds when we perform mental activities
like thinking.
Cognitive linguistics tries to understand the correlation between language and mind
and offers new insights into a better understanding of language. Relatedly, euphemisms
can be approached and analysed from a cognitive point of view that reveals interesting
results which help understand the nature of language and how it functions and works.
Despite the fact that euphemisms are used everyday but remain almost unnoticed by us
because it is a human need that we tend to be polite in every possible manner.
Cognitive Linguistics: One Drop from an Enormous Ocean
Cognitive linguistics can be defined as a contemporary, current school of linguistic
practice and thought which is involved in examining the significant correlation between
human language, the mind and socio-physical knowledge [1, p. 263].
This definition opens us a door to understand the nature of cognitive linguistics.
Cognitive linguistics, accordingly, is related to other sciences such as sociology,
semantics and the study of metaphor and metonymy.

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Historically, cognitive linguistics dates back to the 1970s and has been active to a
great extent since the 1980s. After a quarter century, much research has been conducted
into cognitive linguistics, most of which into semantics.
It is believed that cognitive linguistics has emerged, to a huge degree, as a result of
the mixture of occurrences and discoveries which happened in the domain of theoretical
linguistics in the 1960s and 1970s [2, p. 2]. These discoveries paved the way for cognitive
linguistics to appear and present itself as a modern science deriving from cognition that
aims at offering new explanations to the theory of language and linguistics in general.
Sánchez [3, p. 8] argues that the major reason behind the rise of cognitive linguistics
can be observed in the disapproval of a group of linguists in the 1970s to the generative
paradigm which was dominating in linguistics and cognitive psychology. At the moment,
we could say that cognitive linguistics places itself more to the study of linguistic
semantics into the correlation of language and mind other than to the study of psychology,
social and cultural studies in a broader sense.
Evans & Green [4, p. 5] argue that there is an important reason behind the interest
of linguists in the domain of cognitive linguistics to examine the roots of language based
on the belief that language reveals patterns of thought.
Needless to say that investigating language from a cognitive standpoint can
intrinsically prove to be useful since there exist cognitive aspects of language to be
considered. Language use comes from our knowledge and perception of the world and
how we interact with it.
The Cognitive Approach to the Analysis of Language
There is a cognitive approach to the analysis and studying of the nature of language.
According to Croft & Cruse [5, p. 1], there are three main hypotheses into the cognitive
approach to the language:
 Language is not an independent cognitive ability;
 Grammar is nothing but conceptualisation; and:
 The knowledge of language comes from its use.
They argue that these three hypotheses show a reaction by cognitive linguistics to the
prevalent methods of syntax and grammar at that time. The first assumption contradicts
the famous hypothesis of generative grammar that language is an independent, instinctive
capability separated from nonlinguistic cognitive competencies. While the second one
opposes the truth-conditional semantics in which a semantic metalanguage is judged in
terms of truth and falsity related to the model of the world. The last one is in an opposition
to the reductionist trends in both truth-conditional semantics and generative grammar in
which many semantic and grammatical phenomena are ascribed to the "periphery" (the
fringe or outer edge).
Based on that, these three hypotheses may imply, at least to some extent, that
cognitive linguistics has been opposing generative grammar and truth-conditional
semantics. However, cognitive linguistics does not place itself against other linguistic

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fields of study; it is rather a novel approach of understanding and explaining linguistic
phenomena in terms of the correlation between language and mind.
Relatedly, there happens to be three major approaches into language analysis. The
first one is called "The Experiential View" which adopts a more practical and more
empirical characterisation to meaning rather than presuming logical rules and objective
definitions built on theoretical judgments.
The second approach, "Prominence View", depends on concepts of profiling and
figure/ground segregation. This approach concerns the manner in which objects in the
environment are distinguished shall they considered as perceptually significant figures
emerging from the background. This approach can help investigate language and how it
functions and interacts with its surroundings.
The last approach is referred to as "The Attentional View" that concerns our
expressions in which they are reflected upon some parts of a certain incident that attracts
our attention.
These three approaches to language analysis demonstrate the assumption that a
cognitive method to study any language and not only English is not merely of a descriptive
basis but rather a prescriptive one. The reason for this is that cognitive linguistics is simply
a small part of the general cognition which considers that all knowledge is cognitive in its
own nature [6, p. 36, in: 7, pp. 4-5).
Tendahl [8, p. 112] believes that cognitive linguistics is usually considered as a
great rival to other modern and maybe more traditional approaches to language study, for
instance generative grammar and truth-conditional semantics.
Any language, then, has cognitive aspects which help us understand how this
language works, functions and interacts with other languages and in different situations.
Euphemisms: Sweet or Deceptive?
Euphemisms are very effective linguistic means used to replace bad, unwanted or
harsh words and expressions by rather more acceptable ones that sound more polite.
Burridge [9, p. 66] defines euphemisms as "sweet-sounding, or at least inoffensive,
alternatives for expressions that speakers or writers prefer not to use in executing a
particular communicative intention on a given occasion". While Wardhaugh [10, p. 239]
defined euphemisms as "the prohibition or avoidance in any society of behavior believed
to be harmful to its members in that it would cause them anxiety, embarrassment, or
shame". Gramley & Pätzold [11, p. 35] define them as "the result, not of changes in the
real world, but of changes in the conscience of a society in areas where it feels guilt or is
afraid to talk about a taboo subject". All these definitions can help us understand the
nature of euphemisms as a unique linguistic phenomenon.
Originally, the word "euphemism" comes from the Greek word "euphémismōs" that
means speaking well [12, p. 387]. Accordingly, euphemisms are ancient and have
mythological roots. This could indicate that euphemisms were used for religious reasons
to avoid direct mentioning of God and other forbidden expressions.

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Historically, euphemisms can be traced back to the early times of language history
as it was a demonstration of mythological thinking of people. At that point, people avoided
attaching direct names to God, more specifically in Christianity. In Christian cultures
God's name was euphemised into several words and expressions. Examples include:
Cripes (to refer to Christ), "by jingo" (by Jesus). Interestingly, the Devil was also
euphemised as "Old Nick", "Prince of Darkness", "Old Gooseberry" [13, p. 37].
The need to use euphemisms is both a social and emotional one that allows us to
address subjects that are usually avoided in public. A euphemism has a protective
functionality among its users in terms of politeness and face-saving [14, p. 228]. We may
describe a euphemism in an image where it serves as a social tool which cleans the garden
of the language of its weeds (bad words).
Yule [15, p. 60] refers indirectly to the usefulness of using a euphemism in terms
of politeness and face-saving, which both relate to pragmatics. He puts it this way: "face
means the public self-image of a person. It refers to the emotional and social sense of self
that everyone has and expects everyone else to recognize".
However, sometimes euphemisms can be deceiving and distort the truth. Some
users may perceive them as a mask that hides behind it an ugly reality. This is clearly
shown in what is known as "Doublespeak" which is a kind of disguise. Then it is not only
the matter of appropriateness and politeness that euphemisms try to achieve but rather
dying our words to hide their stain.
Euphemisms can be classified according to the semantic fields they refer to.
Nevertheless, Rawson [16, p. 1] established his own classification of euphemisms into
positive and negative ones. Though rather old, it is still regarded as a reliable one even
after more than 30 years of research conducted into euphemisms.
The general categories of euphemisms include death, religion and politics or
political correctness. Some examples include: "to kick the bucket" meaning "to die" [17,
p. 220]; "God" is referred to as "The Lord"; and "Ethnic Cleansing" instead of "Genocide".
There are many other categories of euphemisms such as sex, ethnicity and addiction but
in general, these are the most common and used ones.
Euphemisms and Dysphemisms: Friends and Enemies
Discussing euphemisms requires examining their counterpart, dysphemisms, in the
consideration that dysphemisms are euphemised to sound more polite and acceptable.
There is a strong relationship between them possibly because euphemisms would not have
existed in the first place if there were not dysphemisms to be euphemised.
A dysphemism refers to "a word or phrase with connotations that are offensive
either about the denotatum and/or to people addressed or overhearing the utterance" [18,
p. 31]. If we look at dysphemisms from another angle then it is possible to say that they
are insulting yet direct in situations where bad language is sometimes needed to sound
more confident.
Dysphemisms involve many topics such as taboo language, swearing, profanity and
blasphemy. A taboo can be defined as "referring to human experiences, words, or deeds
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that are unmentionable because they are either ineffably sacred (like the name of God) or
unspeakably vile (like incest)" [19, p. xv]. Historically, taboos originated from the Tongan
"tabu" which first came to be known at the end of the eighteenth century. It was Captain
James Cook of the British Royal Navy who was assigned to Tahiti in his first voyage
between 1768 and 1771 to notice the passage of the planet Venus across the Sun to use
the term "tabu" in his third voyage record. He observed the behaviour of some Polynesian
women who refused to have dinner with British sailors at any cost because it was
something forbidden in their own culture and customs [18, pp. 3-4].
Nevertheless, taboos are far more ancient than what the above tells us. They are as
ancient as the topics they are associated with such as religion and death which are of great
significance in humans' life. At those ancient times, people were not interested in
understanding taboos probably in fear of causing bad consequences for them and their
beloved ones. Jay [20, p. 155] tells us that taboos can be used to accomplish a mixture of
personal and interpersonal consequences which might be positive, negative, or
insignificant in terms of their effect on others, despite the argument that all uses of taboos
are, to some extent, pernicious.
Concerning swearing, it is considered as a bad use of language where tabooed
words or expressions are spoken or written in order to express or pass on severe feelings
such as anger and frustration.
Remarkably, McEnery [21, pp. 28-29] claims that females swear less frequently
than males based on studies conducted in the 1970s. This might be true in terms of gender
where it is unlikely for females to swear in public. From a cognitive aspect, Jay &
Janschewitz [22, pp. 269-270] point out that all instances of swearing are conceptualised.
They further divide them into propositional and non propositional. The first is intentional,
prepared and can be polite or impolite whereas the latter is unintentional, unplanned and
cannot be controlled.
Another popular topic in dysphemisms is profanity and blasphemy. Hughes, [19, p.
362] remarks the origin of the word "Profanity" which derives from the Latin word
"fanum" meaning temple. Related to that, he defines blasphemy as "the contemptuous use
of religious symbols or names, either by swearing or abuse" [19, p. 31]. Profanity and
blasphemy can be misunderstood as they are clearly close to each other. The distinction
between profanity and blasphemy is rather complex and unclear.
In some societies where religion is most prevalent such as Islam, profanity and
blasphemy are punished [23, p. 71]. This definitely poses a great threat to the freedom of
speech and the right to express feelings and opinions freely without the fear of being
persecuted or silenced. However, bad words will continue to be used as long as there are
people who will still use them.
Semantically, euphemisms can acquire different meanings other than those original
ones associated to them and become dysphemisms as a result of semantic change. This
linguistic process is referred to as "Pejoration of Euphemisms". Pinker [24, p. 212] names
this linguistic phenomenon as "Euphemism Treadmill" in which he exemplifies as follows:
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"People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism
becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its
own connotations, and so on. For example, undertaker changes to mortician, which then
changes to funeral director".
Pejoration as a linguistic phenomenon is opposite to that of amelioration [25, p. 37].
Euphemism treadmill can be as a bridge for taboos to survive in the language.
Apparently, pejoration of euphemisms works in contrast to the process of
euphemisation where dysphemisms become euphemisms and then become dysphemisms
in rather a slow process.
Conclusion
To summarise, cognitive linguistics plays a significant role in understanding the
nature of language and how it works. Cognitive linguistics is simply a small part of the
general cognition. Since cognitive linguistics is concerned with examining the relation
between language and mind, thus euphemisms can be approached from a cognitive point
of view. Euphemisms are very effective linguistic tools that convert harsh words and
expressions into more acceptable ones. Nevertheless, they may reveal negative
denotations and distort the reality by deceiving the person who receives them.
Euphemisms and dysphemisms are closely connected to each other by two
processes of euphemisation and pejoration of euphemisms or "Euphemism Treadmill".
Both of euphemisms and dysphemisms are seen as two cognitive processes having
cognitive features that can be analysed to understand their nature and function.
The category of dysphemisms contains taboos, swearing, profanity and blasphemy
etc. Though they are all considered as a bad use of language, they add other vocabulary
to the current word stock of the language. They are like weeds in the garden of language.
In the light of what has been discussed, a conclusion can be drawn from the fact
that euphemisms and dysphemisms influence us all. Only future generations will decide
what to say or not to say in a world that is rapidly changing and developing around the
clock. As linguists, we may only observe, write notes and enjoy the scene!
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