Hooking Up and Using the John: Why Do We Use So Many Euphemisms?

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Author Ralph Keyes is intrigued by how we say certain things without quite saying them. In Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, he explores subjects that have inspired creative phrasing, from sex and money to food and death. Whether it's because we are afraid to blaspheme, want to be polite or (like Shakespeare and Mae West) just like to have fun with language, there's no shortage of motives for employing euphemisms. Keyes spoke with TIME about how disease became a mainstream word, what processing meat means, and why it is that we go to the john.

Is it possible to speak without using euphemisms?
I would hate to try. Who would have me to dinner if I just let it all fly, linguistically speaking? It would be very, very difficult to speak without euphemisms.

So why write about them?
The euphemisms we choose to use tell us something about our values, and they tell us about what makes us uncomfortable. I define euphemisms as what I call comfort words — they're words we use in place of words that make us uncomfortable.

That includes all kinds of slang.
It includes slang, it includes jargon. But what makes us uncomfortable changes with time. Our ancient ancestors were so worried about bears, they didn't even want to name them because they feared [the bears] might overhear and come after them. So they came up with this word — this is up in Northern Europe — bruin, meaning "the brown one" as a euphemism, and then bruin segued into bear. We know the euphemism, but we don't know what word it replaced, so bear is the oldest-known euphemism.

So many of our mainstream words began as euphemisms. Cemetery was originally a euphemism for graveyard: it's Greek for dormitory or the sleeping place. Dis-ease became a polite way to say someone was sick: he's suffering a little dis-ease. Now it's become a mainstream word, a synonym for sick. That happens a lot. But then in another, opposite process, euphemisms take perfectly good words and taint them. There was a time when occupy was a synonym for having sex, and so for a long time, occupy became a very risqué word. Now it's been rehabilitated. But we see the same process at work with hook up.

Are we using more euphemisms now than we used to?
In certain areas. We use less in the areas of sex and body parts, and body functions. Certainly in religion, who cares if you say God or Jesus Christ, or hell or damn? On the other hand, in the areas of food, death, war, disability, ethnic sensitivities, we're much more inclined to be euphemistic than our ancestors were. We're much more cautious about using words for killing animals than we used to be. We don't kill them anymore; we depopulate herds, or hunters harvest animals. Housewives used to bring in a chicken and chop its head off and pluck it and disembowel it and clean it up. Well, they weren't processing it, they were butchering it. In war, we don't drop bombs, we drop force packages. [Those who use these] incredible amounts of jargon try to deflect us — and maybe even themselves — about what they're doing.

And you see this as one danger of euphemizing.
Oh, yeah, because it keeps us from having to face what we're up to. David Lloyd George — he was Prime Minister of Britain during World War I — once said that if we ever spoke plainly and clearly about what was going on on the battlefields, the public would demand that we bring an end to war. Soldiers almost never kill, on the battlefield, they wax an enemy soldier, they off him, they ice him, they grease him, they neutralize him, they liquidate him, they light him up, they render him inoperative — that's one of my favorites.

Do you have an absolute favorite euphemism?
I love European lifestyle for sleeping around. I love at peace with the floor for being drunk. I like go offline for die. A high-school classmate wrote me that somebody he knew used to work for a life-insurance company and when it came time to pay benefits on a policy, they would say the policy holder was postretirement. Some of them are very creative. In the whole field of what we'd call bathrooms, the words change: I love where the Queen goes alone. We call them johns, that is because in the 18th century, people used to say they were "going to see Cousin John." In the early 19th century, when John Quincy Adams was in the White House, he was the first one to install an indoor toilet. So then people would start saying, "I'm going off to visit Quincy."

You have a whole section on "fallen names," from John to Charlie, even your own name, Ralph.
Well, as a Ralph, I'm very sensitive to this issue. I mean, God, it's not just vomit, but all sorts of undignified ways my name gets used. Johns are even worse off. In this country, a john, of course, is a bathroom; in Britain, johnnies are condoms.

You note that in Victorian times, fear of blasphemy gave way to fear of impropriety. What spurred that on?
I think it was primarily that the middle class was growing, and people really wanted to be seen as proper. You no longer said leg, you said limb. You didn't ask for the breast of a chicken, you asked for some white meat.

Which recalls that supposed anecdote about Churchill.
Wherein Winston Churchill was asked what kind of meat he would like at a dinner party, and he said "I would like some breast, please." A woman said to him, "We don't talk that way here." He said, "But what would you call it?" And she said, "White meat." So the next day he sent her a corsage with a card saying, "Pin this on your white meat."