Using euphemisms: the good, the bad and the ugly

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Joe Dougherty, Contributing Writer

 

Euphemisms take the place of a seemingly less fitting or polite word or phrase while still pointing toward the same meaning. Verbal lipstick on social pigs, these tools can be metaphors, pop references, logical tricks and more, and can be used for good or bad.

Good euphemisms bring humor, quality of life or truth. When we hear that a politician has a “conflict of interests” because his committee regulates an enterprise he runs, we laugh because he really has a coincidence of interests, and our unspoken understanding is humorous. Laughter improves quality of life, as can literary and social wordplay.

For instance, there’s no telling how many previously marginalized individuals may live better “vertically challenged,” rather than “short.” The way we use some euphemisms also helps us get at the truth, which doesn’t always sink in when put plainly. Human truths are often too delicate or difficult for simple words anyway, so we say that a relative has passed on or that a friend has a negative cash balance. Good euphemisms are indispensable tools.

We may find ourselves in need of speech re-education, however, when the connotations of our euphemisms become evocative in a bad way. Some of our most common euphemisms fit this category: gosh, golly, gee, dang, darn, heck and many more not fit to print. What’s wrong with these in particular? They refer to God or to damnation. Garbled versions of the originals, these words would not be used if their troubling connotations did not exist.

But aren’t we just getting a mild thrill out of harmless noises? Not really. Infringing on the Second and Fifth Commandments by belittling God and wishing a person or thing to hell asks the listener to indulge that darker side sometimes called original sin. There is no real difference, in these situations, between using the euphemism and using the original.

Of course, most of us talk in the way we grew up talking, without intending to provoke anyone, but habit is not a sufficient excuse. That guy who yells “Parsnips!” when he stubs a toe is a different question, seeming less euphemistic than humorous, but we can’t assume that our audience is wholly inured and unaffectable.

As a school of good will, high standards and kindred spirits, we already have a rare plane of interaction from which to grow far and fast, morally and culturally. If we all reassessed our use of euphemisms in our communication today, tomorrow’s improvement in the University of Dallas’ general subconscious would catapult us into previously unimaginable unanimity without sacrificing worthy diversity.

The rewards of self-honesty and considerate speech are joy and love. So let’s think before we speak and grab inappropriate euphemisms by the horns!

 

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