Robert Fulford's column about euphemisms

(The National Post, July 24, 2001)

More than a generation after the sexual revolution, the mere word "sex" still flusters us so much that in public we handle it with tongs of delicacy. This sentence, lifted from the Internet, demonstrates the discomfiture of its author: "Friday, July 6: Rep. Gary Condit has admitted to Washington, D.C., police that he had a romantic relationship with missing intern Chandra Levy, a police source told Fox News."

Romantic? In some contexts, "romantic" might have meant they read Keats and Shelley to each other or played soft music during dinner while candles flickered. But that's not what the writer was trying to convey. "Romantic" has become one of the words we use in place of "sexual" because we remain nervous about a subject that everybody decided, 30-some years ago, not to be nervous about any more.

By our euphemisms you shall know us. Using them, we pay tribute to the dangers of speech and writing. A euphemism is the verbal tool you reach for when you want to express something but don't quite want to say it.

A euphemism (the word comes from the Greek for "good speech") functions as a calming device, making unruly feelings manageable, though it can also be employed with malice aforethought. Euphemisms that hide or obscure ("outplacing" used by the human resources department instead of "firing," for instance) constitute vicious language abuse. But normally, those who cherish language enjoy coming upon a euphemism, because they know that it's a snapshot of words and ideas in motion.

In recent times, "seeing" has become a synonym for what was once called a love affair: Twice in the last year I've heard, "they are seriously seeing each other." It's evasive and weirdly imprecise, which is what language should never be -- yet it makes the point. In some circles, it's replaced "sleeping with," which was used on several million occasions when no sleep took place or was contemplated.

Have events in Washington since the Clinton-Lewinsky period placed "intern" in this category? Newsweek recently mentioned polls demonstrating that "an overwhelming number" of American parents don't want their daughters to be Washington interns. The parents may fear the moral swamp of Washington, but probably they fear the word just as much.

The other night, a commentator on CNN said recent events have given "intern" a prurient meaning. It may soon be one of those words that mere punctuation can render libellous, like protege. If you say Professor Jones has adopted a certain student as his protege, you do no harm. But put quotation marks around "protege" and the leer is unmistakable.

In the days when Time tried to generate fresh language, it produced one of the most famous euphemisms. Because William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher, was unable to persuade his wife to divorce, he simply lived ("in sin," as they once said) for the rest of his life with his great love, actress Marion Davies. Year after year, Time described her as Hearst's "great & good friend," a term that became part of the American language. (Davies turned out to be a pretty great friend; when Hearst's empire collapsed in the '30s she pawned her jewellery and lent him back much of the money he had given her.)

"Intimacy" has been used so often in this sexual context that it has almost moved beyond euphemism and turned into simple description. In court you can hear the question "Were you intimate with him?" This query has nothing to do with whether two people exchanged, say, emotional memories of childhood.

In 1995, a Methodist singles group in the United States held a retreat on the theme "Intimacy Is Not a Euphemism for Sex." Wrong: The Oxford English Dictionary describes "intimacy" as "euphem. for sexual intercourse," and claims it goes back to 1676.

Euphemism, in the wrong setting, may brand anyone using it as comically genteel. Honey, the young woman guest at the nightmare dinner party in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, says she would like to powder her nose. George, the host, turns to his wife and says, "Martha, won't you show her where we keep the euphemism?"

Laurence Sterne accidentally created one of the great euphemisms of his day, but it quickly went into reverse and became a vulgarism. In Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Tristram tells us how he figured out the precise date he was conceived. He says his father was a man of regular habits in all spheres of life, and he made it a rule always to wind the great house-clock on the first Sunday night of every month. Gradually, he "brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month." Tristram tells us that "my poor mother," upon hearing the winding of the clock, knew that something else was about to happen. In this way Tristram dates "my geniture" to Nov. 5, 1718.

Tristram Shandy was the great literary best-seller of 1760 in England, and this passage created a euphemism that was apparently used by both the gentry and the masses. Soon, streetwalkers took to asking potential clients, "Sir, will you have your clock wound up?" Before the year was out, an aggrieved craftsman published anonymously a pamphlet called The Clockmaker's Outcry Against the Author, claiming Sterne had ruined his business. He reported that women who had commissioned him to make clocks for them had cancelled their orders "because no modest lady now dares to mention a word about winding up a clock, without exposing herself to the sly leers and jokes of the family." The clockmaker claimed that virtuous matrons were even hiding their clocks in storage rooms, to keep the sight of them from exciting family and guests "to acts of carnality."

This was a euphemism that raged out of control, like a rogue elephant. Robert Burchfield, who edited the Oxford English Dictionary, claimed that "a language without euphemisms would be a defective instrument of communication." True, but euphemisms, like metaphors, require careful management.

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